RBEC Background Paper for G12 on Regional Seas Programmes

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Publication Title

Water and Environment Issues in the Black, Caspian and Aral Seas - Background paper for the G12 environment strategy prepared by the United Nations Development Programme, Regional Bureau for Europe and Central Asia

Publication Type

Background Paper


Publication Date

January 2003


Publication URL




Background paper with thorough analysis on water- (and environment-) related issues of the great regional seas.

Executive Summary:

This background paper has been prepared by the United Nations Development Programme as a contribution to the G12 environment strategy under consideration by the European Union.

The Aral Sea, Black Sea and Caspian Sea share common bonds geographically, politically and environmentally. Each has been significantly impacted by the industrialization and agricultural management practices of the Soviet Union, and, in the post Soviet era, the transitional governments have dealt with environmental pressures with an array of responses. These water specific environmental challenges, varying paths of development, and current governance structures are addressed in this report.

There are several commonalities in regional environmental governance in the Aral Sea, Black Sea and Caspian Sea basins. Common themes include a basic lack of capacity, a lack of revenues dedicated to national and regional environmental management and enforcement, a lack of compliance with existing internationally implemented regional environmental programmes, dependence on international support to meet basic environmental management needs, and institutional and sectoral isolation. These factors are endemic throughout the region and create significant barriers to successful water and environmental management.

The environmental concerns that are in most dire need of attention across the Black Sea, Caspian Sea and Aral Sea basins are a direct result of industrial and agricultural activities instigated during the Soviet economic expansion throughout these regions. These massive projects emphasized immediate domination of nature in order to reap maximum gains, but the result has been economic dependence on non-sustainable development. These trends were exacerbated following the collapse of the Soviet Union, as states sought to survive economically at the expense of their natural resources.

The countries in these regions share common needs for assistance. Current national environmental action plans need to be amended to more accurately reflect realistic achievable results instead of unobtainable ideals. National and regional Intersectoral coordination needs to be enhanced in order to most effectively address common environmental concerns. Implementation of standardized monitoring of environmental quality, specifically effluents, pollution and nutrient levels and other anthropogenic impacts should be emphasized throughout all of the basins in order to create reliable data for compliance and enforcement and to gauge the concrete actions at the local, national and regional levels.

Despite these commonalities, there are also notable differences in regional environmental governance in each of these Basins. As a result, these problems cannot be resolved by applying a single template for regional environmental management.

The Aral Sea basin suffers from a lack of coordinated national, regional and international efforts. There are multiple water users and usages, and the prevalence of cotton monoculture throughout the Aral basin strains water resources well beyond sustainable capacity. Further, these strains are magnified by: competition between states over the water resources of the two major river systems feeding the Aral; debilitating patronage systems; missed early opportunities for institutional change; and over all regional instability. Only in the Aral Sea basin is competition over fresh water an immediate threat to economic and political stability of the states in the region. There is a lack of any legal agreement on the protection of the Aral basin environment and interstate agreements on water allocation are proving difficult to uphold. Large amounts money, through grants and loans, have been spent on addressing the Aral basin problems in the past ten years, but with no evident change in the behaviour of the basin states towards good resource management.

In comparison, the Black Sea basin has the benefit of a coordinated regional sea programme with significant international funding and technical resources, and, as a result, encouraging progress is clearly seen in the policies of some Black Sea states. The Black Sea has a ratified Convention, a functioning Commision and nascent secretariat, and an active umbrella environmental programme. The somewhat ambitious objectives of the regional coordinating body have resulted in a delayed implementation phase; however, a recent revision of the Strategic Action Programme has stretched the time-frame, making implementation more feasible. Eutrophication caused by nutrient loading from agricultural activities in the major river basins and from inadequate municipal and industrial wastewater treatment has impacted greatly on the Black Sea ecosystem and, in particular, its socially and economically important fisheries. This issue is a major focus for the international community, particularly GEF, and a concerted effort by the UN agencies to tackle and control the problem. There is attention to broad based environmental management throughout this area, and in the contributory river basins as well. Unlike the Aral and Caspian basin, in several of The BlackSea states, there is a clear economic incentive to improve environmental management in order to meet EU accession requirements. Unfortunately, the G12 Black Sea states are not candidates for EU accession and as a result there is uneven effort amongst the countries in pursuit of common water management issues. However, political instability in the Black Sea region does not appear to be immediately threatened by environmental degradation.

The Caspian basin has several unique environmental, political and geographic features that distinguish it from the neighboring basins. The regional coordinating body is focused on establishing a dialogue between the states and producing realistic plans (national and regional) for protection of the Caspian environment, emphasizing intersectoral coordination and collaboration. Poor economic conditions, lack of political will, instability, and disputed legal status, diminish the short-term potential of this programme. Monitoring to ascertain the environmental impacts of human activities in the region, and human health impacts in the coastal zones has been abandoned by the littoral states and decisions are being taken in a knowledge vacuum. There are important bioresources, including sturgeon, which, if managed correctly, could generate significant revenues and provide the financial means to support a strong environmental management, but at present vested interests and short term perspectives prevent good stewardship. The Caspian Sea basin contains significant energy resources and it is these, it is hoped, along with the region’s geopolitical importance, which will be in the long-term be the saviour, rather than some would assert the destroyer, of the seas’ environment.

Despite these differences, this study makes a number of common recommendations to be summarized here. These include: increased focus of international assistance organizations on compliance with existing regional international agreements where possible; enhanced intersectoral coordination at the local, national and regional levels; development of economic instruments to achieve cooperation and compliance; development of region wide public health atlases to evaluate impacts of poor water supply and wastewater treatment; and increased public awareness and NGO participation in international projects.


See also


Central Asia

External Resources


 TRT G12 Regional Seas Programmes.doc

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