Recommendation may come soon on Caspian-to-Azov-Sea canal route

ASTANA - Thursday, September 30, 2010 - A recommendation may come soon on the best option for a new canal linking the Caspian Sea to the open ocean.

A Russian-Kazakhstan working group is expected to review the results of a just-completed feasibility study of two routes within days, Russian news organizations reported.

No matter which path from the Caspian to the Azov Sea is chosen, experts say, the canal is likely to be the costliest public-works project in modern Russian history.

Canals are swashbuckling efforts that captivate the imagination, but interest in this one is heightened by the fact that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is championing one option and Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev the other.

Although the Russian-Kazakhstan working group is likely to recommend a route, the final decision on the option for such a major undertaking would come from the countries’ heads of state – a process that could be interesting to watch.

Some commentators say a new canal would transform Kazakhstan into a seafaring power, but the Putin option would accommodate only 5,000-ton ships and the Nazarbayev option only 10,000-ton vessels. Those are very small oceangoing craft, hardly the stuff of a maritime power.

The ships would be large enough to carry a lot more oil out of the Caspian than vessels carry now, however, which is the major attraction for Kazakhstan.

A canal accommodating larger vessels would give Russia another chokehold over the flow of Kazakhstan oil, however – and thus more political leverage with its neighbor. Most of the crude that Kazakhstan pumps goes by pipeline through Russia, although Kazakhstan is trying hard to diversify its transport channels.

The Putin canal option is a larger and deeper waterway running alongside the canal that already connects the Volga and Don Rivers.

The Nazarbayev option, which the president calls the Eurasian Canal, is a new waterway through Russia’s Caucasus to the south of the Volga-Don Canal.

Unveiling his idea at an economic forum in St. Petersburg in 2007, Nazarbayev enthused that the Eurasian Canal would be “a powerful corridor providing an outlet for the whole of Central Asia to the sea via Russia.” In other words, it would benefit not only Kazakhstan but also the other Caspian nations of Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Iran.

The Volga-Don waterway, finished in 1952, can handle barges and very small ships. A vessel using it travels from the Caspian Sea north up the Volga, takes the canal west from the Volga to the Don, then continues west on the Don to the Azov Sea. The Azov connects south to the Black Sea, which connects west to the Mediterranean Sea and then to the open ocean.

Nazarbayev’s option would involve completing and enlarging a half-finished ship canal that the Soviet Union started in 1930 but abandoned when World War II broke out in 1939.

The Soviets turned the Kuma-Manych Canal from a ship’s canal into an irrigation canal, which they finally finished in 1965.

Nazarbayev’s idea is to build a wider and deeper canal in the valley that connects the Kuma and Manych Rivers.

The Eurasian Canal option would mean a vessel would travel from the Caspian west into the Kuma River, then northwest up the enlarged irrigation canal to the Manych River, which flows into the Don. The Don would then take the ship west to the Azov Sea.

The Nazarbayev option would have several advantages over the Putin option.

A ship using the 444-mile Eurasian Canal would get from the Caspian to the Azov Sea up to twice as fast as one taking the 639-mile Putin option.

The Nazarbayev option also would accommodate vessels twice as large as the Putin option – 10,000 tons versus 5,000. That means a tanker plying the Eurasian Canal could carry twice as much oil.

Kazakhstan’s largest Caspian Sea tankers are 12,000 and 13,000 tons, so the transportation ministry would have to order new ships for traversing a canal – but why not order 10,000-ton vessels instead of 5,000?

In addition, ice would block the Nazarbayev option only one or two months a year, while it would block the Putin option three to five months a year, experts say.

Despite the Nazarbayev option’s advantages, the Putin option could prevail if it’s considerably cheaper. 

When he proposed the Eurasian Canal three years ago, Nazarbayev said he thought it would take $6 billion and five years to build.

Putin also proposed his option in 2007 – and Russian officials put a $5 billion price tag on it. They did not offer a time frame for its completion.

Canal projects are notorious for having cost overruns and schedule delays, so the cost of either option could end up being much higher than estimated and the time frame much longer.

The feasibility study, when it becomes public, presumably will offer prices and time frames for ready comparison of options.

Whatever the price tag turns out to be, Russian and Kazakh officials have said it will be daunting enough that an international financing effort will be necessary.

In the end, a wild card could trump cost. The Putin option could prevail simply because of sheer old political muscle.

Either canal, after all, would go through Russian territory. If Putin became adamant about the Volga option, Kazakhstan would either have to accept it or end up without a canal.