The Caspian Sea: Is it really a sea or a lake or none of the above?

The Caspian Sea is the largest inland body of water in the world, but due to certain peculiarities, there is no agreement as to whether it is really a sea or actually a damn big lake. But while it may seem like a trivial problem, the answer has significant geopolitical implications that make it a delicate issue.

The Caspian…ocean?

The Caspian Sea is located at a point between Europe and Asia and is surrounded by several states, including Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan. The water extends over a distance of 1,200 km and covers an area of ​​approximately 371,000 square miles (143,200 sq mi). This gives it an area almost as large as the country of Japan.

According to ancient Greek and Persian sources, the enormous size of the body of water suggested that it was an ocean, which contributed to its name. This argument is further supported by the fact that it has a high salinity (salt content), although this is more the case in the south than in the north, where fresh water enters from the Volga. Moreover, the water becomes deeper as you sail towards the south. And this is quite a contrast. The northern part of the water can drop to a depth of about 5 to 6 meters (16 to 20 feet), but in the south the water can drop to as much as 1,000 meters (3,000 feet).

The Caspian freshwater lake?

All these features might make you think that we are clearly describing a sea here, but it is really a tricky case. The Caspian Sea has some unique features that put us off a bit. First, there is the simple case of the whole being landlocked and very inland. The only way to access it by water is via the Volga, which flows through Russia, and through some canals that connect it to the Black Sea, the Baltic Sea and the Sea of ​​Azov.

Although it has a high salinity, it does not receive this from the open sea and is actually fed with fresh water from several rivers other than the Volga, including the Urals and the Kura. But despite this constant flow of freshwater, the sea maintains an average salinity of about 12 parts per thousand (ppt). This means that the waters are saltier than freshwater, but much less than a typical sea (which usually has a salinity of about 35 ppt).

These unique properties have also made the Caspian Sea a home for several species that have adapted to the brackish conditions. This includes the Caspian sturgeon, whose eggs form the much sought-after caviar. Then there’s the cute-looking Caspian seal, which is only found around these waters and is the smallest member of the earless seal family.

However, the Caspian Sea is threatened by pollution and overfishing. And this is where the issue of definition comes into play.

Rich resources and geopolitics muddy the waters

Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Caspian Sea has become an important geopolitical issue for surrounding states due to the presence of oil and gas resources in and around its waters. Each state has been involved in several ongoing disputes over territorial waters and the establishment of exclusion zones, all of which have come at the expense of the environment.

Each country has invested significant amounts in exploiting the area’s natural resources for its own economic purposes. At any given time, patrol boats from the different states lurk along the agreed boundaries of their assigned portions of the water to protect their interests.

At the same time, local fishing communities and the tourist industry continue to trade and operate on the waters, providing their livelihoods.

This is why the vexed classification issue of whether the Caspian Sea is actually a sea or a lake is of great importance. Without a formal internationally recognized agreement on this issue, geopolitical issues have been allowed to play out along more traditional geopolitical lines, including coercion and negotiations guided by power politics, rather than international law.

However, if the state were to become more involved with the international community, a definition of the Caspian Sea as a legitimate sea would allow its waters to be protected under the same international instruments that protect the world’s oceans, and would strengthen the rights and responsibilities be divided for this sea. explosion, protection and management of marine ecosystems.

Unfortunately, the states bordering the waters have increasingly withdrawn from international treaties in recent years, even more so than immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union.

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