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Oceans Have Saved Us Now We Have To Save Our Oceans

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Authors: Prakash Sharma and Partha Pratim Mitra*

The rampant consumption of Earth for its resources has caused massive alterations to its responsive ecosystem. Humans desires have separated themselves from the mutual well-being of the other living and non-living entities of the planet. Human needs following various generations of industrial revolution has only resulted in accumulation of piles and piles of waste and pollution. The inefficient development model has invaded the ecological habitats of “others”.

Every year June 08 is celebrated as World Ocean Day. During the 1992 Earth’s submit, Canada proposed the concept of a World Ocean Day. Since then, there have been remarkable measures adopted to this project of Ocean protection. The focus of this year’s Ocean Day celebration centers around the spirit of “together we can”. humanity finds itself confronting with many issues including COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and poisoned plastic. The rise of contagious diseases like COVID-19, SARS, MERS, Zika virus, Ebola etc. are all result of self-consuming model. Perhaps, it reveals the manner in which development has only resulted in manipulating animals and plants, with no integrity or care for their health. In fact, the response during pandemic is no different. For plastic industry, pandemic is seen as an advantage to push suspensions or rollbacks of hard-won environmental measures of reducing plastic pollution. The argument is to follow caution and ensure that the pandemic does not results in epidemic. It in these lines the present writeup outlines various legal instruments entered amongst nation-states; and thereby argues for re-evaluating existing human practices to ensure crucial changes to the health and sustenance of marine ecosystem.

Early Initiative: Convention on Fishing and Conservation of Living Resources of the High Seas, 1958

The Convention of Fishing and Conservation of Living Resources of the High Seas, 1958 is an agreement that was designed to solve through international cooperation the problems involved in the conservation of high seas, considering that because of the development of modern technology some of these resources are in danger of being overexploited. The Convention took place at Geneva on April 29, 1958 under the auspices of United Nations forproblems involved in the conservation of the living resources of the high seas due to development of modern techniques for the exploitation of the living resources of the sea and man’s ability to meet the need of the world’s expanding population for food which has exposed some of these resources to the danger of being over-exploited. The original convention consisting 22 Articles mainly restricting fishing activities of member countries within their territorial seas. It entered into force on 20 March 1966 and at present there are 38 signatories to the convention.

Conventions for Prevention of Marine Pollution during 1970s

The legal framework was also structured to control the marine pollution and conserve the wildlife in marine ecosystem during the period of 1970s. The marine pollution awareness generated after the industrial development in the western countries and mainly after the disasters of Torrey Canyon, a Liberian oil vessel, caused huge damage in marine life of British coasts in 1967, and Santa Barbara near California suffered a huge ecological loss after a blow out of an oil well in 1969. People realized the necessity of strict provision to control oil pollution to protect the marine life and Oslo Convention for the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping from Ships and Aircrafts, 1974(Oslo Convention)was introduced to cope with marine pollution in international level. It modified previous Convention for Prevention of the Pollution of the Sea by Oil, 1954and subsequent international efforts were often triggered by major oil spills such as the accidents involving the Torrey Canyon in 1967, the Amoco Cadiz in 1978, the Exxon Valdez in 1989 and the Prestige in 2002.

The Helsinki Convention on the Protection of the Marine Environment of the Baltic Sea Area, was originally signed in 1974,for the protection of the Baltic Sea from all sources of pollution from land, air and sea and also to take measures on conserving habitats and biological diversity and for the sustainable use of marine resources. The original Convention was signed by Denmark, Finland, the German Democratic Republic, the Federal Republic of Germany, Poland, Sweden and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and subsequently was updated in 1992 by Estonia, the European Union, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Russia and Sweden.

Barcelona Convention for the Protection of the Mediterranean Sea Against Pollution, 1976and came into force in 1978, was the legal framework implemented through the Mediterranean Action Plan (MAP), which aims to protect the Mediterranean Sea basin. Three additional legal instruments i.e. Protocol on pollution from land-based sources, 1980, Protocol concerning Specifically Protected Areas, 1982 and Offshore Protocol, 1994 were adopted by this convention. The contracting parties to the Barcelona Convention included measures to prevent the deterioration of the Mediterranean coast in 1995 and now it is known as Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment and the Coastal Region of the Mediterranean came into force on July 9, 2004.

Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals, Bonn, 1979 (CMS) assumes relevance in the context of marine migratory species and its Tenth Meeting of the Conference of the Parties, adopted about “marine debris” on 2011 Bergen, Norway. Here, marine debris negatively impacts substantial numbers of migratory marine wildlife, including many species of birds, turtles, sharks and marine mammals that are threatened with extinction;

Major pollution accidents in the recent past have created another exception to the exclusiveness of flag State jurisdiction on the high seas, in favour of States whose coastline is threatened with serious pollution damage from a foreign shipping casualty. This right gained rapid recognition after the British action against the American tanker, the Torrey Canyon in 1967 which led to the adoption of the International Convention on Intervention on the High Seas, 1969 in case of Oil Pollution Damage, and ultimately found entry into theLaw of the Sea Convention, 1982 (UNCLOS).

The ship borne wastes generated during normal operation are regulated bytheOslo Convention. But this Convention is not globally applicable and is limited essentially to the North-East Atlantic area. The banned dumping wastes cannot be regulated by the Basel Convention for Transboundary movement of Hazardous Wastes, 1989. In this regard, the London Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and other Matters, 1972 (London Convention), is an important international instrument for protection of marine resources and marine biodiversity against the disposal of wastes into the seas.

In 1983, Pacific Island nations proposed an immediate ban on the dumping of nuclear waste into the sea. They made their proposal before the authority established under the London Convention for regulating the sea pollution caused by dumping. The London Convention is a global Convention and is wider than the Oslo Convention. After the 1996 London Protocol, the dumping of all wastes are prohibited and it completely prohibits incineration at sea and the dumping of industrial wastes.

UN Convention on the Law of Sea, 1982

The UNCLOS is the foundation for the modern law relating to international fisheries.It conferred on the nationals of all states the right to engage in fishing on the high seas but this right is subject to their treaty obligations and the rights and duties as well as the interests of the coastal states. All states have the duty to take or to cooperate with other states in taking measures for their respective nationals as may be necessary for the conservation of the living resources of the high seas.

The UNCLOS specifically addresses some categories like highly migratory species, namely tuna, marlin, sailfish, swordfish, dolphin, shark and cetacea listed in Annex I. Then marine mammal’s category includes 12 species including great whales which were previously hunted near extinction, as well as small cetaceans, dolphins, porpoises, seals, dugongs and marine otters. Next categories, Anadromous species which are spawned in freshwater rivers but spend the major part of their lives at sea passing through territorial sea, Exclusive Economic Zone and High Seas and Catadromous species are spawned at sea and send major part of their lives in rivers and lakes.

In particular, the UNCLOS attributes jurisdiction over conservation and use of marine living resources within the various marine zones, and also sets forth certain basic conservation principles applicable therein, within the territorial sea, states have traditionally enjoyed exclusive rights to fisheries as part of the exercise of sovereignty there. In Section 2 of Part IX (Articles 116 to 120) deals with the provisions relating to ‘Management and Conservation of Living Resources of the High Seas’ and Part XII (Articles 192 to 237) totally deal with ‘Protection and Preservation of the Marine Environment’ including Enforcement, Safeguard and International rules to prevent and control marine environment pollution.

Initiatives during 1990’s and onwards

In a ministerial meeting in September 1992, representatives of Oslo Convention and Paris Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution from Land-based Sources, 1974 adopted a new Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic, 1992 also known as OSPAR Convention.

Likewise, the Washington Declaration on Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities held on November 1995 for affirming the need and will to protect and preserve the marine environment for present and future generations and also reaffirming the relevant provisions of Agenda 21 and the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, 1992. This process included among others a week-long meeting of government designated experts, focusing on the Montreal Guidelines for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-Based Sources of Pollution, 1985.

Recently, International Maritime Organization amended the Annexure V of International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) dealing with “Prevention of Pollution by Garbage from Ships” which will prohibit the discharge of all garbage from ships into the sea from January 1, 2013.In March 2019, The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) adopted Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-Based Activities, Nairobi for retaining the high quality of the coastal and marine environment for ecosystem functions and services in support of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals to conserve and sustainably use oceans, seas, and marine resources. It has the plan to implement Bali Declaration, 2018 and Manila Declaration, 2012 for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities which identified nutrient, wastewater and marine litter as priority source categories of marine pollution.

Indian Position on Prevention of Marine Pollution

There is no specific regional convention for South Asian Seas among India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Maldives. The UNCLOS is the only primary legal instrument for guidance. But India ratified various marine safety conventions and has amended the Merchant Shipping Act, 1958 several times to develop and maintain Indian shipping law in the line of international mercantile marine law and Part XB deals with ‘Civil liability for oil pollution damage’.The Territorial Waters, Continental Shelf, Exclusive Economic Zone and Other Maritime Zones Act, 1976 under section 15(2)(e) has vested the power to the Central Government to make rules preservation and protection of the marine environment and prevention and control of marine pollution for the purposes of this Act.The Coastal Regulation Zone Notification, 2018 has also provision for prevention of coastal pollution.

Marine Pollution: Concerns for our Oceans

The United Nation estimates that 13 million tons of plastic are dumped in the sea each year and that half of the plastic produced globally is for single-use items. According to a WWF Report, “if just 1% of the masks were disposed of incorrectly and dispersed in nature, this would result in as many as 10 million mask per month polluting the environment.” The Report further stipulates that “considering that the weight of each mask is about 4 grams, this would result in the dispersion of more than 40 thousand kilograms of plastic in nature.”

Does it mean the biodegradable plastic would act as the better solution? Many suggests that more than plastic solutions, there is a greater need for all waste to be disposed of properly. It is argued that the exposure of biodegradable plastic to different environments showed that “some items disappeared quickly, while you could still shop in some of these bags after four years in the sea. By the time they get to the sea, it’s too late.”

Concluding remarks

Ocean for time immemorial is the source of human prosperity and development through navigation, research, fishing and many others. Protection of oceanic resources and marine ecosystems are very necessary for human’s own survival. As the world is engulfed with unmindful response to COVID-19 pandemic, one could fairly assume that there will be ‘still talks’ and ‘no response’. Earths capacity to support human desires are limited and the talks of nature’s response are somewhat misdirected. For instance, for all the development in science and awareness formed against use of plastic, the COVID-19 pandemic experience only puts us back to square one. It yet again proved that we depend on plastic. Can world afford to move backwards? Present times have conveyed us that there is a greater need for collective efforts in order to bring sustainable alternatives. Yes, ‘together we can’, but, if we are serious and want to take thoughtful actions ‘it is now’!

*The author has written three books on environmental laws.

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Increasing Frequency of Cyclones and Flooding Portends Worse Problems

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Sixteen years ago on August 29th, hurricane Katrina struck the Louisiana coast causing widespread damage that was estimated at $125 billion.  This year, by a remarkable coincidence, hurricane Ida hit on the same date, again August 29th.  The weather service  holds the end of August though the beginning of September as the period with the highest likelihood of tropical cyclones hitting the Louisiana coast.  In light of this, perhaps the coincidence is not quite as uncanny.

While not as large as Katrina, hurricane Ida was more powerful with winds in excess of 150 miles per hour.  That is in line with climate scientists who now believe extreme weather events will tend to increase in both severity and frequency unless something is done about global warming.

Another example has been the heat wave last June in the Pacific Northwest in which hundreds of people died.  Canada set an all-time-high temperature record of 49.6 degrees Celsius in the village of Lytton.  The chance of all this happening without human-induced global warming is about 1 in a 1000.  However, the warming makes the event 150 times more likely. 

Following Ida was hurricane Larry.  Also powerful, it formed in the Atlantic but luckily for the Atlantic coast chose a path straight north.  These recurring extreme weather events have caught the attention of scientists.  Thus Myhre from the Center for Climate Research in Norway and his coauthors find a strong increase in frequency and confirm previously established intensity.  They collected data for Europe over a three-decade period (1951-1980) and repeated the process for 1984-2013.  This historical data also allowed them to develop climate models for the future, and, as one might imagine, the future is not rosy.

Expanding their horizon, the authors note that historical and future changes in Europe follow a similar pattern.  This does not hold when including the US, Japan and Australia which are likely to experience bigger changes.  Given intensity and frequency going hand in hand and also that the study considered natural variability alone, we can only dread the inclusion of human forcing through climate drivers like greenhouse gases.

For coastal residents, sea level rise adds to the hazard.  Worse, it is now a problem for people several miles inland.  In South Florida, drainage canals are used to return water to the ocean after storm and flooding events; the difficulty now lies in rising sea levels that hinder the efficiency of the drainage canals. 

Residents as far away as 20 miles inland have noticed water coming up their driveway, a new and frightening portend of the future.  The South Florida Water Management District oversees the canals.  It raises and lowers the gates controlling flow to the ocean or vice versa.  Thus they can open the gates to release flood water from storms to the ocean. 

The problem now is that the ocean level in the Atlantic during some storms is higher than the water level inland so they cannot open the gates — that would simply bring in more water.   

All of these happenings are clearly not a happy future prospect … unless we take global warming seriously and act soon. 

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Human activity the common link between disasters around the world

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Disasters such as cyclones, floods, and droughts are more connected than we might think, and human activity is the common thread, a UN report released on Wednesday reveals.

The study from the UN University, the academic and research arm of the UN, looks at 10 different disasters that occurred in 2020 and 2021, and finds that, even though they occurred in very different locations and do not initially appear to have much in common, they are, in fact, interconnected.

A consequence of human influence

The study builds on the ground-breaking Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment released on 9 August, and based on improved data on historic heating, which showed that human influence has warmed the climate at a rate that is unprecedented in at least the last 2,000 years. António Guterres, the UN Secretary-General described the IPCC assessment as a “code red for humanity”.

Over the 2020-2021 period covered by the UN University, several record-breaking disasters took place, including the COVID-19 pandemic, a cold wave which crippled the US state of Texas, wildfires which destroyed almost 5 million acres of Amazon rainforest, and 9 heavy storms in Viet Nam – in the span of only 7 weeks.

Arctic-Texas link

Whilst these disasters occurred thousands of miles apart, the study shows how they are related to one another, and can have consequences for people living in distant places.

An example of this is the recent heatwave in the Arctic and cold wave in Texas. In 2020, the Arctic experienced unusually high air temperatures, and the second-lowest amount of sea ice cover on record.

This warm air destabilized the polar vortex, a spinning mass of cold air above the North Pole, allowing colder air to move southward into North America, contributing to the sub-zero temperatures in Texas, during which the power grid froze up, and 210 people died.

COVID and the Cyclone

Another example of the connections between disasters included in the study and the pandemic, is Cyclone Amphan, which struck the border region of India and Bangladesh.

In an area where almost 50 per cent of the population is living under the poverty line, the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns left many people without any way to make a living, including migrant workers who were forced to return to their home areas and were housed in cyclone shelters while under quarantine.

When the region was hit by Cyclone Amphan, many people, concerned over social distancing, hygiene and privacy, avoided the shelters and decided to weather the storm in unsecure locations. In the aftermath, there was a spike in COVID-19 cases, compounding the 100 fatalities directly caused by Amphan, which also caused damage in excess of 13 billion USD and displaced 4.9 million people.

Root causes

The new report identifies three root causes that affected most of the events in the analysis: human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, insufficient disaster risk management, and undervaluing environmental costs and benefits in decision-making.

The first of these, human induced greenhouse gas emissions, is identified as one of the reasons why Texas experienced freezing temperatures, but these emissions also contribute to the formation of super cyclones such as Cyclone Amphan, on the other side of the world.

Insufficient disaster risk management, notes the study, was one of the reasons why Texas experienced such high losses of life and excessive infrastructure damage during the cold snap, and also contributed to the high losses caused by the Central Viet Nam floods.

The report also shows how the record rate of deforestation in the Amazon is linked to the high global demand for meat: this demand has led to an increase in the need for soy, which is used as animal feed for poultry. As a result, tracts of forest are being cut down.

“What we can learn from this report is that disasters we see happening around the world are much more interconnected than we may realize, and they are also connected to individual behaviour”, says one of the report’s authors, UNU scientist Jack O’Connor. “Our actions have consequences, for all of us,”

Solutions also linked

However, Mr. O’Connor is adamant that, just as the problems are interlinked, so are the solutions.

The report shows that cutting harmful greenhouse gas emissions can positively affect the outcome of many different types of disasters, prevent a further increase in the frequency and severity of hazards, and protect biodiversity and ecosystems.

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Blue sky thinking: 5 things to know about air pollution

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Around 90 per cent of people go through their daily lives breathing harmful polluted air, which has been described by the United Nations as the most important health issue of our time. To mark the first International Day of Clean Air for blue skies, on 7 September, UN News explains how bad it is and what is being done to tackle it.

1) Air pollution kills millions and harms the environment

It may have dropped from the top of news headlines in recent months, but air pollution remains a lethal danger to many: it precipitates conditions including heart disease, lung disease, lung cancer and strokes, and is estimated to cause one in nine of all premature deaths, around seven million every year.

Air pollution is also harming also harms our natural environment. It decreases the oxygen supply in our oceans, makes it harder for plants to grow, and contributes to climate change.

Yet, despite the damage it causes, there are worrying signs that air pollution is not seen as a priority in many countries: in the first ever assessment of air quality laws, released on 2 September by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), it was revealed that around 43 per cent of countries lack a legal definition for air pollution, and almost a third of them have yet to adopt legally mandated outdoor air quality standards.

2) The main causes

 Five types of human activity are responsible for most air pollution: agriculture, transport, industry, waste and households.

Agricultural processes and livestock produce methane, an extremely powerful greenhouse gas, and a cause of asthma and other respiratory illnesses. Methane is also a by-product of waste burning, which emits other polluting toxins, which end up entering the food chain. Meanwhile industries release large amounts of carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, particulate matter and chemicals.

Transport continues to be responsible for the premature deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, despite the global phase out of dangerous leaded fuel at the end of August. This milestone was lauded by senior UN officials, including the Secretary-General, who said that it would prevent around one million premature deaths each year. However, vehicles continue to spew fine particulate matter, ozone, black carbon and nitrogen dioxide into the atmosphere; it’s estimated that treating health conditions caused by air pollution costs approximately $1 trillion per year globally.

Whilst it may not come as a great shock to learn that these activities are harmful to health and the environment, some people may be surprised to hear that households are responsible for around 4.3 million deaths each year. This is because many households burn open fires and use inefficient stoves inside homes, belching out toxic particulate matter, carbon monoxide, lead and mercury.

3) This is an urgent issue

 The reason that the UN is ringing alarm bells about this issue now, is that the evidence of the effects of air pollution on humans is mounting. In recent years exposure to air pollution has been found to contribute to an increased risk of diabetes, dementia, impaired cognitive development and lower intelligence levels.

On top of this, we have known for years that it is linked to cardiovascular and respiratory disease.

Concern about this type of pollution dovetails with increased global action to tackle the climate crisis: this is an environmental issue as well as a health issue, and actions to clean up the skies would go a long way to reducing global warming. Other harmful environmental effects include depleted soil and waterways, endangered freshwater sources and lower crop yields.

4) Improving air quality is a responsibility of government and private sector

On International Day of Clean Air for blue skies, the UN is calling on governments to do more to cut air pollution and improve air quality.

Specific actions they could take include implementing integrated air quality and climate change policies; phasing out petrol and diesel cars; and committing to reduce emissions from the waste sector.

Businesses can also make a difference, by pledging to reduce and eventually eliminate waste; switching to low-emission or electric vehicles for their transport fleets; and find ways to cut emissions of air pollutants from their facilities and supply chains.

5)…and it is our responsibility, as well

At an individual level, as the harmful cost of household activities shows, a lot can be achieved if we change our behaviour.

Simple actions can include using public transportation, cycling or walking; reducing household waste and composting; eating less meat by switching to a plant-based diet; and conserving energy.

The Website for the International Day contains more ideas of actions that we can take, and how we can encourage our communities and cities to make changes that would contribute to cleaner skies: these include organizing tree-planting activities, raising awareness with events and exhibitions, and committing to expanding green open spaces.

How clean is your air?

You may well be wondering exactly how clean or dirty the air around you is right now. If so, take a look at a UNEP website which shows how exposed we are to air pollution, wherever we live.

The site indicates that more than five billion people, or around 70 per cent of the global population, are breathing air that is above the pollution limits recommended by the World Health Organization.

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