‘I used to jump from this rock into the sea just 10 years ago,” says Azamat Sarsenbayev, a 33-year-old videographer and environmental activist. “Now people are sitting on rocks that were once under water. I remember, as a kid, the sea was much deeper.”
On his Instagram page, Sarsenbayev highlights the natural beauty of the Mangystau area of western Kazakhstan where he grew up, including stunning drone footage of the thousands of flamingos that migrate here.
But he also documents pollution and environmental issues, including evidence of what is now an incontestable fact: the Caspian Sea is shrinking – at an unprecedented speed.
The Caspian Sea is the world’s largest inland body of water, and its coastline – put at 4,237 miles (6,819km) in 2017 – is shared by five countries: Azerbaijan, Iran, Russia, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. It is also the shallowest – in some areas the water is only about 4 metres deep.
According to a forthcoming report by Kazakhstan’s Institute of Hydrobiology and Ecology, the Caspian Sea is approaching the lowest level of 29 metres below sea level, recorded in 1977; the average annual level in 2023 is already below this.
The rate at which the sea level is falling has also accelerated in recent years. For example, the average rate of decline over the past three years is about 23.3cm a year.
In June, the local Aktau authority declared a state of emergency over the critically low level of the sea.
The decline is particularly concerning, given the fate of the Aral Sea in central Asia, which was once the world’s fourth-largest lake but is now barely visible on satellite images.
The Caspian’s drop in sea level is most noticeable on its shallow northern coast. Kaydak bay has vanished, following Dead Kultuk bay, which was lost at the end of the last century.
Habitats are becoming more susceptible to storm surges, extensive shoals are forming and the entire north-eastern coastline is shifting. Satellite images clearly show the extent by which, since 2006, the coastline has retreated.
The reasons the sea is shrinking are both natural and human-made. The main tributaries of the Caspian Sea – the Volga and the Ural, both of which originate in Russia – have lost a lot of water. Lower rainfall and higher temperatures are factors, but so, too, is growing water extraction due to human activity: on the Russian side, the Ural River already has 19 dams and large reservoirs.
Meanwhile, Aktau is mushrooming. Originally a small uranium-mining settlement on the steppes, it has been transformed by a new nuclear power station and a desalination plant into a small city; the oil and gas industry has led to a further boom. The limited desalination system is barely sufficient to sustain the demand for water.
“Every time I see a new building being raised, I think about where it will get the water from,” says Assal Baimukanova, a researcher at the Institute of Hydrobiology and Ecology.
Baimukanova is among a team of 15 carrying out fieldwork on the sea, including researching the unique species of Caspian seal, whose population has fallen from about 1 million at the start of the 20th century to an estimated 70,000 now and landed it on the IUCN red list of endangered species, as warmer winters cause the loss of ice cover, making it harder for newborn pups to survive.
About 125 miles northwards across the steppe is the small military base and coastal village of Fort Shevchenko, where the fishing association has 811 members. Many of their families have been fishing for generations; Akimzhanov Daniyar took over from his father and grandfather.
Daniyar has seen the conditions change enormously – and not just the shrinking sea. On a boat trip, he indicates the rigs and hotels catering to the oil industry: the Kashagan field, discovered in 2000, is the largest outside the Middle East, and is being developed by the Agip Kazakhstan North Caspian Operating Company, a consortium that includes some of the world’s biggest oil companies, such as Eni, Shell, ExxonMobil and Total.
Ever since the consortium began to drill for oil, water pollution has worsened. In December 2022, the mysterious deaths of 2,500 seals made international news.
“We see many dead gulls and fish and, sadly, many seals killed by pollution,” he says. Later, in his kitchen, he shows photographs he had taken on his phone. “Only last year we found at least 400 [dead] animals, and the same the year before.”
The Kazakh government is taking small steps at conservation. It has established a protected northern zone for seals and sturgeon. But with five different countries sharing the Caspian, information on the status of the marine life remains out of reach – despite being essential.
As studies predict the Caspian’s level could fall even further, by 9-18 metres or more, and with the area shrinking by more than a quarter before the end of this century, a political agreement between the countries is crucial to help protect it.