Protecting the oceans
EVERY year on the 8th of June, all member states of the UN officially celebrate “World Oceans Day”.
This falls into the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) laid out by the UN, specifically SDG 14 which mandates that countries must “conserve and sustainable use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development”.
Oceans are considered essential to the world’s economic, social and environmental needs. They cover over two-thirds of the planet’s surface area, and contain roughly 97% of its water.
Scientifically speaking, they are considered the source of all life on earth. Ocean temperatures and currents also regulate rain and other climatic aspects on land.
Furthermore, just under half the population of the planet depends on some form of marine life as a source of livelihood.
Over 11 billion tons of cargo is shipped globally via the world’s oceans and seas, making these colossal water bodies the backbone of global trade and mobility.
Furthermore, over 1.9 billion metric tons of crude oil and fuel products are shipped through global shipping lanes every decade.
However, similar to man’s negative footprint on land, the oceans have been suffering greatly due to rampant misuse. Excessive consumer-led growth has led to ever increasing waste production.
At least eight million tons of plastic-based waste material ends up in the oceans, in addition to another two million tons of other such waste products, polluting both the water layer and the undersea sediments across the globe.
Additionally, about 400 million gallons of oil enters the oceans from various sources such as oil spills and household and industrial oil wastes not being recycled properly.
This is also compounded by millions of tons of untreated sewage from major cities across the world that is first dumped either into fresh water rivers and lakes and ends up in the oceans eventually, or is directly released into the nearest ocean or sea.
Skimping out on recycling and sewage treatment costs the world upwards of $2.5 trillion due to ecosystem loss for fish and other aquatic animals, and also loss to fisheries, aquaculture, recreational activities and global wellbeing.
It is estimated that pollution causes an estimated 1-5% decline in the benefits humans derive from the world’s oceans and seas.
Overfishing is a major problem globally, but more so in Pakistan, where fishing yields have dropped despite an increase in the size of the fishing fleet.
Usage and unethical disposal of non-biodegradable fishing nets significantly increases the pollution in our coastal waters and poses a direct threat to aquatic life. Pakistan is a major contributor to this global problem as well.
Even though the country has signed the London Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter, all sorts of its unrecycled waste such as single use plastics, sewage, industrial runoff and even hospital waste end up in the Arabian Sea.
Hazardous heavy metals from industries, such as the ship-breaking yard in Gadani, also end up in the sea.
The lack of proper waste treatment facilities in Karachi and across other industrial hubs across the coast results in toxic substances being discharged in what used to be the pristine waters of the Makran Coast.
From Karachi alone, it is estimated that about 12 thousand tons of plastics are sent for waste disposal, of which only about 40% ends up in landfills and recycling. The rest eventually ends up in the sea.
A major concern, especially from plastics, is that these compounds often do not biodegrade at all, and dangerously end up in smaller components in fish and animals that rely on the sea.
A national cleanliness drive and focus on a shift from consumerism to more sustainable shopping and packaging practices can reduce the waste discharge into the sea, 65 percent of which is estimated to be just plastic bottles, wrappers, bags, single use utensils and such.
Lastly, while this problem may be unique more to Pakistan than other countries in the region, urban development and real estate projects on the coast of Karachi and elsewhere pose a significant further risk to the mangrove forests in those localities.
Sustainable land use policies may yield significant benefit to the maritime economy of Pakistan if they are able to incorporate these existing forests for tourism or as protected wetlands, instead of chopping them down.
These pose as a natural barrier against rising ocean levels caused by global warming, and serve as wildlife and fauna reserves.
For too long has the maritime sector of this country been neglected and a capacity building and mass education scheme imparting knowledge about the importance of sustainable development, ethical waste disposal and greener ocean-use policies that protect the ecology of our waters.
The area composed of the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of Pakistan is bigger in size and arguably resources than any of its provinces.
The country relies heavily on trade from the sea and the maritime sector has one of tremendous export and tourism potential.
It is equally important that any developments, including any upcoming offshore energy sector projects and the proposed developments on islands off the coast don’t come at the cost of protecting the oceans.
—The writer who is affiliated with Technische Universitat Dresden, Germany and National Institute of Maritime Affairs (NIMA) Islamabad, contributes to the national press on an occasional basis.