Is the Caspian a sea or a lake? Maybe a rather metaphysical question for the business section but the answer could have profound results for the central Asian energy industry, which holds perhaps the largest amount of under-exploited oil and gas reserves on earth.
A conference in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, last week failed to agree on the answer. The presidents of the five states that share the Caspian's shores - the host along with Russia, Iran, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan - just could not decide.
ou can understand their dilemma. It has been called a sea since time immemorial, mainly because of its sheer size. The Caspian is far bigger than many other stretches of water that are indisputably called "seas", such as the North Sea or the Baltic Sea.
If you've had the pleasure of swimming in it, as I have, it certainly feels like a sea. It is salty and has big waves. Stretches of the Absheron peninsula, on which Baku stands, are developed as areas you could only call seaside resorts.
On the other hand, the Caspian also has the defining characteristics of a lake: it is land-locked and has no outflowing rivers. It is the largest enclosed body of water on the planet. In the north, where the mighty river Volga washes into it, it is virtually fresh water (salinity increases the further south you go).
The Caspian has one other feature that makes it very unusual indeed. Underneath it, or within easy reach of its shores, are locked some 79 billion barrels of oil and 7 trillion cubic metres of natural gas. Now you begin to understand why the five countries with Caspian shorelines are so interested in its status.
If they had decided the Caspian was lake, they would have had to carve up its resources and the revenue they produce equally, each getting one fifth of its bounty. Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan are especially concerned this should not happen: they have substantially more than that in the current de facto arrangement.
If the presidents had decided it was a sea, they could each have laid claim to areas according to the length of their coastlines. In particular, this would not have suited Iran: with only 13 per cent of the total Caspian shoreline, and the least promising so far in terms of proven hydrocarbon resources, it would have lost out to its neighbours with longer coastlines.
Source: Article by, Frank Kane http://www.thenational.ae/business/industry-insights/energy/lake-or-sea-a-tricky-question-for-the-caspian