Azerbaijan International

Summer 2000 (8.2)
Pages 40-42

Beautifying the Bay
New Environmental Project Launched

by Maarten A. Gischler

Baku Bay

In the early part of the 20th century, waterfront activities were the most common form of recreation in Baku. Azerbaijanis enjoyed swimming, boating and sailing on the nearby Baku Bay. However, when Baku citizens were recently surveyed about their opinions on the Bay, few knew that it had once been a popular recreation area.

Pollution in Baku Bay

Photo: Kodor, the old schooner that once served as a restaurant, caught fire and sunk. Now plans are being made to clear the sea of wreckage like this and other boats.

When asked what the Bay might look like in 2020, residents had trouble seeing beyond today's serious problems: the polluted air, the smell of sewage, the sight of oil on the Caspian waves, the debris and scrap material floating in the water. Few could imagine swimming in the water once again, much less eating fish caught fresh from the Bay.

Polluted Caspian

Photo: Fishing of the Boulevard in the polluted Caspian.

There is a long way to go before the Bay will be clean. The pollution problems are as complex as the solutions, and the whole process may take two or three decades. But Azerbaijanis are working to make it happen, with help from their friends.

Tough Problems
Early in 1999, a team of experts from the State Committee for the Environment, the Academy of Sciences, the Baku Municipality, the Azerbaijan Marines, Kasmorniiproyekt, Kaspbasu and IWACO (International Water Consultants) from the Netherlands started making an inventory of the environmental problems and their underlying causes. The list included:

1. Baku Bay presently receives a surplus of around 400,000 square meters of sewage each day because the city's network of municipal sewers and pumping stations can convey only part of the wastewater to the main treatment plant at Hovsan, which is 15 km outside of Baku. While the Berlin Wasser Betrieb and the municipality have drafted plans to convey more wastewater to the plant and expand its capacity, implementation is still pending.

2. The oil refineries and the Bibi Heybat oil field discharge thousands of tons of oil into the Bay each year because facilities designed to separate the oil from the wastewater are obsolete and non-functional. "Emergency" discharges into the Bay when facilities break down are frequent.

3. Offshore oil wells - abandoned after the Caspian Sea level rose nearly 3 meters between 1984 and 1995 - have not been plugged and may already have begun to leak.

4. Over the past 20 years, many studies have shown that the Bay's bottom sediment is contaminated with 3 to 5 million tons of petroleum hydrocarbons. However, the removal of this sediment makes no sense as long as the ongoing sources of pollution have not been halted.

5. Many ships in the Bay do not appear to use the Baku Port Authority's reception facilities for wastewater and waste oil, and can be seen discharging directly into the Caspian.

6. Roughly 50 shipwrecks, a number of obsolete piers, various uncompleted structures, and dozens of abandoned industrial scrap yards and dumpsites clog the waterfront and need to be removed.

This list of possible and necessary targets for action seems hopelessly long, and the dream of a clean Baku Bay pales under the glaring light of present-day environmental and economic realities. But all hope is not lost. In Europe and the United States, similar inventories drawn up 25 years ago produced to-do lists that were just as long. In the last two decades, Western countries have made an enormous amount of progress in environmental cleanup.

Action Plan
While environmental degradation of the Baku Bay has been going on for much of the 20th century, it wasn't until 1998 that the bay appeared on the list of Azerbaijan's priority environmental problem areas, as part of the National Environmental Action Plan. This, and the fact of the Bay's importance in the life and industry of Baku, convinced the Netherlands' Government to fund the Baku Bay Oil Pollution Project in cooperation with the Azerbaijan State Committee for the Environment.

Azerbaijan Deputy Prime Minister Ali Hasanov, who heads the Steering Committee for the Baku Bay project, communicated clearly from the outset that he expected more than just "paper" from the Azerbaijan State Committee for Environment and the Dutch consultants of IWACO who implement the project. Rather, environmental action was required.

Boulevard Project
As Baku's prime recreational spot and a newly proclaimed national park, the Boulevard seemed like the logical place to start. While funding was not available for the vast cleanup of oil or stoppage of sewage outfalls, which will eventually take place, the pilot project could remove those obsolete objects that had no place in the first sketches of a master plan for the Baku Boulevard, approved by President Heydar Aliyev in 1999.

Both SOCAR and the municipality agreed to support in the form of equipment and labor, while IWACO agreed to fund operational costs and initiate a fundraising campaign for public awareness activities. Unocal-Khazar was the first to respond positively, with BP Amoco, ExxonMobil and Pennzoil pitching in as well.

In February a group of environmental NGOs - Azerbaijan Green Movement, Khazri Teta, Youth Environmental Center, Ecoscope, Ecoyl Scientific Environmental Society and the Center for Research of Environmental Problems - started making preparations for involving the public, including leaflets and a poster campaign. One goal of the project is to explain environmental issues to a wider public and challenge citizens to think about complex problems and the role they can play in resolving them.

By March the municipality began divers' inspections of an obsolete pier along the boulevard, and at the end of April SOCAR removed the first object, the Kodor, an old schooner that had served as a restaurant until a fire sank it in August 1999. Also scheduled to be removed are an estimated 75 to 100 tons of metal and concrete waste that is sitting along the Boulevard, either in the water or on piers.

On May 20, Caspian Day, 50 schoolchildren helped clean up the litter in Baku Boulevard National Park. Street theater and art contests were also organized. A video was presented on the Bay's environment, and a two-week exhibition was mounted in a pavilion on the waterfront, with help from the Nature Protection Society and the TUTU Children's Cultural and Educational Center.

The Baku Boulevard Pilot Project has proven that all of the ingredients needed to successfully clean up the Bay do exist and can be called to action. Private industries, public organizations and government offices must join together to restore Baku's Caspian waterfront. If Baku institutions show genuine commitment, the international community will be ready to assist and make its contribution, and together Azerbaijanis can make their bay as healthy and beautiful as it once was.

Maarten A. Gischler is a consultant in water and environment for the Dutch firm IWACO, and is team leader of the Baku Bay Oil Pollution Project, funded by the Netherlands' Ministry of Economic Affairs. The Ministry signed its first memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Azerbaijan in 1998 to provide support and cooperate in the sectors of agriculture, energy and environment. The MOU was renewed at the end of 1999, securing support until at least 2001.

Dutch companies that are involved in Azerbaijan include Shell, IWACO, NeSA, a subsidiary of RACAL, Dredging International, Tebodin Consultants, AA Services, Construction, Cleaning and Waste Management and ABNAMRO Bank.

Azerbaijan International (8.2) Summer 2000.
© Azerbaijan International 2000. All rights reserved.

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