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Healthy oceans: Keeping Asia and the Pacific afloat

By Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana
Photo: Unsplash /Adolfo Félix

Memories of idyllic beaches and sonorous waves may seem far away while we remain at home. Yet, we need not look far to appreciate the enduring history of the ocean in Asia and the Pacific. For generations, the region has thrived on our seas. Our namesake bears a nod to the Pacific Ocean, a body of water tethered to the well-being of billions in our region. The seas provide food, livelihoods and a sense of identity, especially for coastal communities in the Pacific island States.

Sadly, escalating strains on the marine environment are threatening to drown progress and our way of life. In less than a century, climate change and unsustainable resource management have degraded ecosystems and diminished biodiversity. Levels of overfishing have exponentially increased, leaving fish stocks and food systems vulnerable. Marine plastic pollution coursing through the region’s rivers have contributed to most of the debris flooding the ocean. While the COVID-19 pandemic has temporarily reduced emissions and pollution on the ocean, this should not be moment of reprieve. Rather, recovery efforts have the potential to rebuild a new reality, embedded in sustainability and resilience. It is time to take transformative action for the ocean, together.

Despite a seascape celebrated in our collective imaginations, research shows that our picture of the ocean is remarkably shallow. Insights from "Changing Sails: Accelerating Regional Actions for Sustainable Oceans in Asia and the Pacific," the theme study of this year’s Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, reveal that without data, we are swimming in the dark. Data are available for only two out of 10 targets for Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14: Life Below Water. Due to limitations in methodology and national statistical systems, information gaps have persisted at uneven levels across countries. Defeating COVID-19 has been a numbers game and we need similar commitment to data for the state of our shores.

While there is much we cannot see, images of plastic pollution have become commonplace. Asia and the Pacific produces nearly half of global plastic by volume, of which it consumes 38 percent. Plastics represent a double burden for the ocean: their production generates CO2 absorbed by the ocean, and as a final product enter the ocean as pollution. Beating this challenge will hinge upon effective national policies and re-thinking production cycles.

Environmental decline is also affecting dwindling fish stocks. Our region’s position as the world’s largest producer of fish has come at the cost of overexploitation. The percentage of stocks fished at unsustainable levels has increased threefold from 10 per cent 1974 to 33 percent in 2015. Generating complete data on fish stocks, fighting illicit fishing activity and conserving marine areas must remain a priority.

Economic activity from shipping must also be sustainable. While the most connected shipping economies are in Asia, the small island developing States (SIDS) of the Pacific experience much lower levels of connectivity, leaving them relatively isolated from the global economy. Closing the maritime connectivity gap must be placed at the center of regional transport cooperation efforts. We must also work with the shipping community to navigate toward green shipping. As an ocean-based industry, shipping directly affects the health of the marine ecosystem. Enforcing sustainable shipping policies is essential to mitigate maritime pollution.

The magnitude of our ocean and its challenges represent how extensive and collaborative our solutions must be. Transboundary ocean management and linking ocean data call for close cooperation among countries in the region. Harnessing ocean statistics through strong national statistical systems will serve as a compass guiding countries to monitor trends, devise timely responses and clear blind spots impeding action. Through the Ocean Accounts Partnership, ESCAP is working with countries to harmonize ocean data and provide a space for regular dialogue. Translating international agreements and standards into national action is also key. We must fully equip countries and all ocean custodians to localize global agreements into tangible results. ESCAP is working with member states to implement International Maritime Organization (IMO) requirements on emissions reduction and environmental standards. 

Keeping the ocean plastic-free will depend on policies that promote a circular economy approach. This strategy minimizes resource use and keeps them in use for as long as possible. This will require economic incentives and disincentives, coupled with fundamental lifestyle changes. Several countries in the region have introduced successful single use plastic bans. ESCAP’s Closing the Loop project is reducing the environmental impact of cities in ASEAN by addressing plastic waste pollution and leakages into the marine environment.

Our oceans keep our health, the economy and our lives above the waves. In the post-COVID-19 era, we must use the critical years ahead to steer our collective fleets toward sustainable oceans. With our shared resources and commitment, I am confident we can sail in the right direction.

Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana is the United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of ESCAP.

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The following companies are listed in the "Top 10 of the Fortune Global 500":

3 Royal Dutch Shell 4 China National Petroleum 6 Saudi Aramco 7 British Petroleum 8 ExxonMobil

One thing that each of those companies have in common is that the success of their business model is dependent directly upon contributing to the destruction of the environment. Burning petroleum is a major contributor of CO2 in the ocean and atmosphere, and petroleum is the major feed stock for the production of plastic.

It is not surprising that some of these companies have spent so much time and money on the effort to deny that global warming is happening.

Most of the planet's oxygen production - 70% - is due to the action of phytoplankton in the ocean. Scientists tell us that since 1950, and the worst effects of global warming and the pollution of the ocean, oxygen production in the ocean has decreased by 40%.

The author strikes an optimistic chord in his article, that we will save the ocean. I hope that conclusion is correct.

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I remember by mother (who is turning 60 in a couple of years) said that when she was a kid, she could swim in my home country's beach along the coastal highway for free and the water was as clear as those found in tropical beaches. Now, that same water is about as dirty as a sewer and the water is as clear as pea soup. I really wish that after this pandemic blows over, people would focus on taking care of the environment more

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East and West are destroying the biosphere in different ways.

In the West, we have been transitioning off of coal, but still burn a lot of petroleum for automotive fuel, and in power plants. The CO2 we produce is, obviously, a big problem for the air and for the ocean. The ocean around the US and Northern Europe is losing its ability to produce oxygen, due to the dead zones in the ocean surrounding those areas. The dead zones are caused by the excess use of artificial fertilizer. In an effort to maximize farm production, cheap artificial fertilizer is used prodigiously. The excess nitrogen and phosphorous cause cyanobacterial blooms. When the cyanobacteria die, the water is depleted of oxygen. Dead zones in the ocean are a problem everywhere, but especially in areas that can afford the artificial fertilizer.

In the East, the use of coal to generate power is still expanding. Again, the CO2 generated is bad for the biosphere, as are the other poisonous byproducts of burning coal. In addition, most of the plastic in the ocean is put there by China and India, due to a disregard for the effects, and an unwillingness to deal with waste plastic appropriately.

In the last analysis, a major driving force in the destruction of the biosphere is the population explosion. Just in my lifetime, for example, the population of Earth has more than tripled.

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