The Caspian Sea, a terminal lake, is the world’s largest single enclosed inland waterbody. It also is the largest salt lake in the world, containing about one-third of its inland surface waters, with a mean salinity about one-third of Earth’s oceans. The Volga River contributes about 80% of its inflow. The lake has exhibited dramatic water level changes over the centuries synchronized largely with Volga River inflows, and more recently to climate change. The Volga River is thought to be the principal source of transboundary contaminants to the lake. The lake contains a heavily-exploited sturgeon population (caviar source), to the point banning sturgeon fishing has been advocated until the population recovers, although the high caviar prices constrain this goal. Another major environmental concern is oil and natural gas production activities along the lake edges. The lake has already received GEF funding, and consideration of further GEF-catalyzed management interventions requires a review of its GEF status.

TWAP Regional Designation Northern Africa & Western Asia; Eastern & Central Asia; Southern Asia; Eastern Europe   Lake Basin Population (2010) 105,000,000
River Basin Caspian (endorheic) Lake Basin Population Density
(2010; # km-2)
Riparian Countries Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia Average Basin Precipitation
(mm yr-1)
Basin Area (km2) 3,412,322 Shoreline Length (km) 9,042
Lake Area (km2) 377,543 Human Development Index (HDI) 0.77
Lake Area:Lake Basin Ratio 0.117 International Treaties/Agreements Identifying Lake Yes

Caspian Sea Basin Characteristics

(a)Caspian Sea basin and associated  transboundary water systems

(a)Caspian Sea basin and associated transboundary water systems

(a)Caspian Sea basin and associated  transboundary water systems

(b)Caspian Sea basin land use

Caspian Sea Threat Ranking

A serious lack of global-scale uniform data on the TWAP transboundary in-lake conditions required their potential threat risks be estimated on the basis of the characteristics of their drainage basins, rather than in-lake conditions. Using basin characteristics to rank transboundary lake threats precludes consideration of the unique features that can buffer their in-lake responses to basin-derived disturbances, including an integrating nature for all inputs, long water retention times, and complex, non-linear response dynamics.

The lake threat ranks were calculated with a spreadsheet-based interactive scenario analysis program, incorporating data and information about the nature and magnitude of their basin-derived stresses, and their possible impacts on the sustainability of their ecosystem services. These descriptive data for Caspian Sea and the other transboundary lakes included lake and basin areas, population numbers and densities, areal extent of basin stressors on the lake, data grid size, and other components considered important from the perspective of the user of the data results. The scenario analysis program also provides a means to define the appropriate context and preconditions for interpreting the ranking results.

The Caspian Sea threat ranks are expressed in terms of the Adjusted Human Water Security (Adj-HWS) threats, Reverse Biodiversity (RvBD) threats, and the Human Development Index (HDI) score, as well as combinations of these indices. However, it is emphasized that, being based on specific characteristics and assumptions regarding Caspian Sea and its basin characteristics, the calculated threat scores represent only one possible set of lake threat rankings. Defining the appropriate context and preconditions for interpreting the lake rankings remains an important responsibility of those using the threat ranking results, including lake managers and decision-makers.

Table 1. Caspian Sea Relative Threat Ranks, Based on Adjusted Human Water Security (Adj-HWS) and Reverse Biodiversity Threats,
and Human Development Index (HDI) Score

(Estimated risks: red – highest; orange – moderately high; yellow – medium;
green – moderately low; blue – low)

Adjusted Human Water Security
(Adj-HWS) ThreatScore
Relative Adj-HWS Threat Rank   Reverse Biodiversity (RvBD) Threat Score Relative RvBD Threat Rank   Human Development Index (HDI) Score Relative HDI Rank
0.73 39 0.60 27 0.77 41

It is emphasized that the Caspian Sea rankings above are discussed here within the context of the management and decision-making process, rather than as strict numerical ranks. Based on its geographic, population and socioeconomic assumptions used in the scenario analysis program, the calculated Adj-HWS score for Caspian Sea indicates a moderately low threat rank compared to other priority transboundary lakes.

The Reverse Biodiversity (RvBD) for Caspian Sea, which is meant to describe its biodiversity sensitivity to basin-derived degradation, places the lake in a medium threat rank, compared to the other transboundary lakes. Management interventions directed to improving the biodiversity status must be viewed with caution, however, since we lack sufficient knowledge and experience to accurately predict the ultimate impacts of biodiversity manipulations and preservation efforts. Further, the RvBD scores indicate the relative sensitivity of a lake basin to human activities, and high threat scores per se do not necessarily justify management interventions. Such interventions may actually increase biodiversity degradation, noting that many developed countries have already fundamentally degraded their biodiversity because of economic development activities. Thus, activities undertaken to address the Adj-HWS threats may actually degrade the biodiversity status and resources, even if the health and socioeconomic conditions of the lake basin stakeholders are improved as a result of better conditions, thereby increasing stakeholder resource consumption.

The relative Human Development Index (HDI) places the Caspian Sea basin in a moderately low threat rank in regard to its health, educational and economic conditions.

Table 2. Caspian Sea Threat Ranks, Based on Multiple Ranking Criteria

(Scores for Adj-HWS, RvBD and HDI ranks are presented in Table 1; the ranks may differ in some cases because of rounding of figures; Estimated risks: red – highest; orange – moderately high; yellow – medium;
green – moderately low; blue – low)

Adj-HWS Rank HDI Rank RvBD Rank   Sum Adj-HWS + RvBD Relative
Threat Rank
  Sum Adj-HWS + HDI Relative Threat Rank   Sum Adj-HWS + RvBD + HDI Overall Threat Rank
39 41 27 66 36 80 40 107 38

When multiple ranking criteria are considered together in the threat rank calculations, the Adj-HWS and HDI scores considered together place Caspian Sea in the lower quarter of the threat ranks. The relative threat is somewhat increased when the Adj-HWS and RvBD threats are considered together. Considering all three ranking criteria together, Caspian Sea exhibits an overall moderately low threat ranking.

Further, a series of parametric sensitivity analyses of the ranking results also was performed to determine the effects of changing the importance of specific criteria on the relative transboundary lake rankings. This analysis involved increasing or decreasing the weights applied to the threat ranks derived from multiple ranking criteria to reassess the relative impacts of the weight combinations on the threat ranks. For example, in determining the sensitivity of the Adjusted Human Water Security (Adj-HWS) and Biodiversity (BD) ranking criteria, the threat rank associated with the first was assumed to be of complete (100%) importance (i.e., rank weight of 1.0), while the other was assumed to be of no (0%) importance (i.e., rank weight of 0.0). The relative importance of the two ranking criteria was then successively changed, with weight combinations of 0.9 and 0.1, 0.8 and 0.2, etc., until the first ranking criteria (Adj-HWS) was assumed to be of no importance (rank weight of 0.0) and the second (BD) was of complete importance (rank weight of 1.0). In the case of Caspian Sea, the 0.5 and 0.5 weight combinations for three cases of parametric analysis for Caspian Sea resulted in respective threat rankings of 7th, 8th and 3rd, respectively, among the total of 8 Asian transboundary lakes in the TWAP study (see Technical Report, Section 4.3.3, pp44-50).

In essence, therefore, identifying potential management intervention needs for Caspian Sea must be considered on the basis of both educated judgement and accurate representations of its situation. A fundamental question to be addressed, therefore, is how can one decide that a given management intervention will produce the greatest benefit(s) for the greatest number of people in the Caspian Sea basin? Accurate answers to such questions for Caspian Sea, and other transboundary lakes, will require a case-by-case assessment approach that considers the specific lake situation and context, the anticipated improvements from specific management interventions, and its interactions with water systems to which the lake is linked.