The New Order in the Caspian Sea which started emerging after the Fifth Caspian Summit encourages new transportation projects in the area. Kazakhstan has got the largest share of the sea and, respectively, of its shelf. Quite possibly, the country will resume its efforts to launch a most ambitious megaproject of Eurasia Canal. Even though the project is Russian, Kazakhstan is certainly the main recipient of the benefits.
Essence of the project
The project envisages connecting Caspian and Azov seas. The new transportation route which will be 1,000 kilometers shorter than the existing Volga-Don Ship Canal. Prior to the 1917 revolution in Russia, about 30 projects of the kind had been drafted, yet none had been implemented. In 1932, construction of Manych Canal was initiated. It was intended to connect Caspian Sea and Don river. In 1941, three waterworks facilities were commissioned (in Ust-Manych, Vesyoly, and Proletarsk). At the second stage of construction five more locks facilities were to be built, yet that channel section was never completed since Volga-Don Canal was already under construction by then. Volga-Don Canal was cheaper for quite apparent reasons, since it links the closest points of Volga and Don rivers, and after World War Two, every penny was much treasured in the country. Ultimately, a number of reservoirs interconnected by canals and locks were arranged along 329 kilometers-long Manych waterway. The waterway was not deep though, and only vessels of 1.3 meters submersion could use it. The prospects of its economic use were therefore fairly low.
The project idea was reanimated in 2006 when Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, the then president of the Republic of Kalmykia which the canal was to cross, received a delegation of China’s Committee on the South-to-North Water Diversion Project and Sinohydro Corporation. The Chinese party then hinted its possible financial involvement with the project. In April 2007, in his annual address to the Federal Assembly, Russian president proposed to turn the Manych project into a subsidiary line of the Volga-Don Canal. The new canal is proposed to go along the Kuma-Manych Depression which is a division line between Europe and Asia. It is the lowest area between the Caspian and Azov Seas with its highest central section being at 20 above sea level. Kuma-Manych Depression is about 500 kilometers long and 1-2 to 30 kilometers wide. Such parameters make it possible to build a navigable canal.
The name of the canal, Eurasia, was first mentioned by Nursultan Nazarbayev, president of Kazakhstan, at St Petersburg International Economic Forum in June 2007. The project proposed by Kazakhstan envisaged constructing a lock canal with water parting line at +27 meters and a total altitude difference of 54 meters. It was to have six locks, length of 675 to 850 kilometers, and freight transit capacity of one line of 45 million tons (whereas the Volga-Don Canal has freight transit capacity of 13 million tons). The canal can be used by ships of tonnage of up to 8,000 tons. According to initial assessments, the canal’s approximate cost was $4 to 4.5 bln and the construction period six to eight years. In 2010, a bilateral task force submitted a more precise assessment of the project at €4.5 bln. In 2014 the idea was once again brought up by president Nazarbayev at his lecture in Moscow State University. At the meeting of Supreme Eurasian Economic Council on May 14, 2018, he suggested to once again review the project. At the moment, the project’s cost is estimated by Kazakhstani experts at $6 bln.
The project is certainly mainly lobbied by the authorities and large businesses of Kazakhstan. As a matter of fact, such a transport corridor is of interest to the entire Central Asia with its rather large countries being located deep inside the continent with no exit to the global sea. Yet all attempts to establish a partially overland communication with Europe within TRACECA (Transport Corridor Europe-Caucasus-Asia) project failed to overcome the problem of a most complicated ground profile in the Caucasus which is a connecting link of the project. If, alternatively, the railroad section is to pass through Iran, there will be a problem of replacing trucks of railway cars due to the fact that Iran and the former Soviet republics of Central Asia have different standards of railroad tracks. The most rational transportation corridor therefore goes via Russia and Volga-Don Canal in particular.
At the St Petersburg International Economic Forum the project was also promoted by the authorities of the Russian regions which the proposed canal should cross (Stavropol Territory, Rostov Region, Kalmykia and Daghestan Republics). At the meeting of Supreme Eurasian Economic Council in Sochi last May, it was not Kazakhstan, but Stavropol Territory who made presentation of the project. Speaking at the Council meeting, Kazakhstan’s president Nazarbayev though, also suggested to discuss the canal construction.
At the moment, there are many refineries being built in the south of Russia to process the output of the recently explored oil and natural gas fields in the areas nearby Caspian Sea. That will eventually require transporting up to 15 million tons of cargos by 2020. The canal appears feasible for direct shipment by tankers from the Caspian shelf to LUKOIL and KazMunayGaz refineries at the Black Sea coast. The canal will improve water supply to arid regions since there will be a fresh water source to ensure the canal’s operation. Canal’s water control structures will make possible constructing hydroelectric power stations. The waterway’s construction and maintenance will contribute to regional productive forces development, while the area suffering from a rather high unemployment rate will get new jobs.
Another party to benefit from the project’s implementation is China. China’s entire trade with Europe is accomplished via ocean freight with cargo ships sailing all around southern Eurasia. The proposed canal will make the China-to-Europe route much shorter.
Environmental advantages of the project may seem questionable, yet they exist. If oil and oil products are shipped via Eurasia Canal, a potential negative impact of a technological disaster would be less significant in comparison to an identical situation at the Volga-Don Canal. In case of the latter, the lower reaches of Volga and Don would suffer a substantial damage as an oil stain would expand far along both rivers. With Eurasia Canal, a potential environmental damage would be local as an oil spill would be limited by a waterway between two locks only.
Russia as a nation (in addition to the economic benefits for some of its territories) would gain geopolitical advantages as its geopolitical positions in Kazakhstan and Central Asia would grow stronger. Canal would also further improve bonds between Russia and China.
By Roman Mamchits