By Bijan Rohani
The Republic of Azerbaijan has been considering a project to create artificial islands in the Caspian Sea that would be the size of a city, with large residential, tourism and commercial centres to attract foreign investors and international tourists.
Azerbaijan has been touting the project as a surefire investment, while Iran has expressed concern about the impact of such a project on the environment and the ecological balance of the Caspian Sea.
The so-called “Khazar Islands” have a projected budget of $100-billion. More than 40 islands of various sizes would be built in a 2,000-hectare area near the coast of Baku in the Caspian Sea, with floating bridges connecting the islands.
The designers of this ambitious plan say they’ll complete it by 2022 and claim it will have a total capacity of one million people. There is also a plan to build the world’s highest skyscraper, at more than 1,000 metres high, on one of these islands. The furthest island will be seven kilometres from the coast of Azerbaijan. The entire project was launched about 10 months ago.
Although the company in charge of planning the islands claims in its website that the project is completely compatible with environmental requirements, officials of the Environmental Organization of Iran are gravely concerned about the construction of such a project and the changes it would cause in the exploitation of the Caspian Sea.
Mohammad Javad Mehdizadeh, the head of Iran’s Environmental Protection Organization, says Azerbaijani authorities have given oral assurances at various meetings that the Caspian Sea ecosystem will not be harmed by this project, but Iran will be reviewing their studies in order to see for themselves. It is not yet clear how comprehensive or convincing their studies are, nor how promptly they will be provided to Iranian authorities.
In the meantime, the deputy head of the marine section of Iran’s Environment Organization, Abdolreza Karbasi, has announced that the construction of artificial islands will change the water currents and increase the turbidity, or cloudiness, which in turn would lead to the eventual destruction of aquaculture in the region. He explains that with increased turbidity and water deposits, sunlight would not penetrate as deeply, therefore, less oxygen would reach the depths. This would adversely affect the marine aquaculture.
The Mehr News Agency reports that Karbasi also predicted that once the projects are completed and people move onto the islands, the contamination resulting from human activity such as sewage and waste will further pollute the Caspian Sea.
A Serious Threat to the Habitat of Caviar-yielding Fish
In addition to the Republic of Azerbaijan, which is planning to build more than 40 islands, Turkmenistan is also constructing an island in the Caspian Sea. Avaz Island is being built on a $5-billion budget and, according to Turkmenistan authorities, it will be similar to Las Vegas in the United States, with casinos, hotels and various tourist attractions.
However, Iranian environmental experts have also expressed concern about this island, saying it could pose a serious threat to the habitat of seals and caviar-yielding fish, and completely disrupt the ecosystem of the Caspian Sea. Some economic analysts have also criticized Turkmenistan’s ambitious plan as an imitation of similar projects by the Arab countries in the Persian Gulf.
Iran’s worries do not end with the artificial islands being built by countries on the northern shores of the Caspian Sea. In the southern waters of the Persian Gulf, the United Arab Emirates has long been building several artificial islands. A project to build islands in the shape of palm trees in the coastal waters of Dubai has been underway since 2001. It involves extracting sand from the Persian Gulf seabed which is then forced by special ships into the construction area.
The palm-shaped islands that Dubai is constructing are called Jamira, Dira and Jabal Ali. Dira Island alone has a projected capacity of one million people. Separately, Dubai also has a plan to build 300 small islands that would form the shape of planet Earth. Dutch and Belgian companies that have expertise in drying out sea beds and creating artificial islands are involved in these projects.
Building these islands in the Caspian Sea or in the Persian Gulf will cause major changes to the environment. Manipulating the seabed, disrupting the water currents and settling millions of people on the islands will cause many unforeseen complications for the environment. Although Iran’s environmental experts have expressed their concerns about the islands, up until now there has been no accurate evaluation of their impact on the environment.
As these massive construction projects are underway in the northern and southern waters of Iran, the main question is: How can Iran find an answer for its concerns and convince its neighbouring countries to include environmental concerns in their development plans?