The Caspian Sea
As the Kashagan underwater oilfield approaches lift-off, and other fields around the Caspian are already being pumped, the environmental future of the world’s largest lake sits in the balance. Oil operations have already brought environmental problems around the Kazakh section of the Caspian shore, including leaks from wells that have been submerged by rises in the level of the sea. Oil in the Tengiz field has a very high sulphur content, which has been blamed by some locals for human illnesses in the area. The region around Aktau, also an oil producer and the scene of uranium mining and a large chemical-metallurgical complex in Soviet times, suffers high levels of respiratory disease. Signs of trouble are visible among the Caspian’s more than 400 fish species, including the famous beluga (white) sturgeon, source of the world’s best caviar. The giant beluga’s last natural breeding ground is around the Ural delta, and there are fears that exploitation of the Kashagan oilfield nearby could put paid to the fish. The same area is also a breeding ground for the poor Caspian seal, whose numbers have dwindled from over a million to under 100,000 since the 1930s, from water pollution, disease, hunting, and a recent jellyfish plague that killed off much of the seal’s staple fish diet. Rising temperatures have already reduced the thickness of winter ice where the seals gather to mate, so the prospects for one of the world’s smallest seals look pretty bleak.