Kazakhstan considers Caspian traffic control system

September 27. Central Asia newswire

By Hal Foster

Kazakhstan considers Caspian traffic control systemWhen Kazakhstan’s economy kicked into overdrive 10 years ago, producers began scrambling to find more ways to get goods out of the landlocked country.

One result is that cargo traffic in Kazakhstan’s sector of the Caspian Sea exploded tenfold, according to Vladimir Konstantinov, chief engineer of the Port of Aktau.

That prompted Konstantinov and other government officials to worry about a collision between ships or between a ship and a stationary object such as an oil rig.

The port decided to approach the U.S. Embassy for help – and that led to a $388,959 American grant for a feasibility study of a maritime traffic management system. It was one of three grants the Embassy awarded last week, the other two being to the Kazakhstan Electric Power Grid Operating Company for power-transmission-related feasibility studies.

Embassy Charge d’affaires Pamela Spratlen, who presided at the grant-agreement signing ceremony, likened the system the Port of Aktau wants to an air traffic control system. Controllers would be able to see ships’ locations on radar as well as radio course-adjustment instructions to those that appeared on collision courses.

Konstantinov said the system, which would cover the entire Kazakhstan sector, would show ships’ locations, courses and speeds, making adjustments easy.

Transponders aboard the ships would send radio signals to a maritime safety coordination center at the port, allowing controllers to identify any vessel by name, size, type of cargo and even crew composition.

The port would be able to relay information on ships it was tracking to those in charge of vessel movements in the Russian, Azerbaijani, Iranian and Turkmen sectors of the Caspian.

Konstantinov said one measure of the increased traffic in the Kazakhstan sector of the Caspian is that a decade ago only 300 to 500 ships a year tied up at the Port of Aktau. That figure has quadrupled to 2,000 a year, he said.

Increasing officials’ concern about a collision is not just the surge in the number of ships plying the Caspian but in the kind of cargo they are carrying.

“Last year vessels leaving Aktau carried 11 million tons of crude oil and 2.5 million tons of dry cargo” such as minerals and agricultural products, he said.

That means oil accounted for a whopping 80 percent of the port’s outbound cargo.

And the 13.5 million tons of combined cargo is just the amount leaving Aktau. Kazakhstan also has a port at Atyrau and some minor ports.

Images of the massive BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico have sobered maritime safety officials in all five Caspian nations.

Damage from a big spill might be irreversible in the Caspian because it’s the world’s only landlocked sea and thus might be unable to cleanse itself, ecologists contend.

And oil cargo traffic on the Caspian will only increase because Kazakhstan’s largest development ever, the offshore Kashagan field, will reach commercial production soon.

In fact, Kazakhstan’s crude production is expected to jump by 50 percent from 80 million tons this year to 120 million in 2019, Spratlen noted.

With that in mind, the Kazakhstan government has decided to create a naval-style base at Damba village near Atyrau to respond to spills.

Oil and Gas Minister Sauat Mynbayev has said the base will contain state-of-the-art containment and clean-up equipment and both seagoing and river-going vessels. The river vessels would clean up spills on waters flowing into the Caspian.

Spratlen said the maritime-safety and power-grid grants from the U.S. Trade and Development Agency are part of an Obama-administration effort to increase American exports, thus increasing jobs.

Obama is the first U.S. president ever to put in place an integrated government effort to ramp up exports, she said.