without borders

Ellik Adler describes how small island developing states and other countries unite to tackle common threats to the seas on which they depend

Threats to the marine environment know no bounds on our ocean planet. Biodiversity loss, the destruction of coastal habitats, uncontrolled coastal development and related land-based pollution, sea-based pollution such as oil spills and marine litter, overfishing and excessive use of marine resources: these are the destructive forces which plague the world’s coastal cities, villages and communities. Their effects on people’s lives and livelihoods are both direct and devastating. Their more indirect impacts reach far inland to drain the economies and development opportunities of entire countries, regions and even continents.

The best that can be said of these threats is that they unify. All over our planet, conflicts and quarrels have been pushed aside by nations who recognize their mutual interest in working together to stop the accelerating degradation of their oceans and coastal areas. From the Mediterranean to the North-West Pacific, often-contentious neighbours have found common cause in their shared marine environment.

For three decades, UNEP has fostered this unity, encouraging neighbouring countries to sit at the same table and work out practical solutions to their problems. UNEP’s Regional Seas Programme, launched in 1974 in the wake of the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, has created a forum where the countries of a region engage in dialogue, exchange experience and information, and express their formal commitment to agreed goals backed up by specific, practical actions.

So, at 30, has the programme’s framework stood the test of time? Is its approach still relevant? Is it equipped to face the challenges of the future? My answer to all three questions is yes. Most programmes are now self-sufficient, self-financing and self-propelling, using very much the same framework as in 1974. The Regional Seas approach has provided the springboard of science and management skills for collaboration with global environmental agreements – and for local implementation of global treaties. And, as for the future, it can help improve the management of new problems threatening marine and coastal environments.

More than 140 countries now participate in 13 regional programmes established under UNEP’s auspices, covering the Black Sea, the Caribbean, East Africa, East Asia, the Kuwait Convention region, the Mediterranean, North-East Pacific, North-West Pacific, Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, South Asia, South-East Pacific, South Pacific, and West and Central Africa. Five partner programmes for the Antarctic, Arctic, Baltic Sea, Caspian Sea and North-East Atlantic are also members of the Regional Seas family. The programme is coordinated by a small team of professionals from UNEP’s headquarters in Nairobi.

Particular concerns
The process of establishing a Regional Seas Programme usually begins with developing an action plan outlining the strategy and substance of a regionally coordinated programme to protect a common body of water. It is based on the region’s particular environmental concerns and challenges, as well as on its socioeconomic and political situation. These may, of course, differ greatly from region to region; in one it may focus on chemical wastes and coastal development; in another it might spotlight the conservation of marine species and ecosystems.

In most regions the action plan is underpinned by a strong legal framework in the form of a legally binding regional convention – expressing the commitment and political will of governments to tackle their common environmental problems through joint coordinated activities, with associated protocols on specific problems.

At the request of its Governing Council, UNEP strengthened its commitment to the programme in the mid-1990s. It began to convene regular global meetings of the secretariats and partner programmes – today 18 in all – to discuss common interests, priorities and links with one another and with global environmental conventions and international organizations. The Governing Council has particularly encouraged ties with the Global Plan of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities (GPA), the Multilateral Environmental Agreements, and other international partners.

It was no accident that this ‘rebirth’ coincided with many initiatives that focused attention on the marine environment, as the world took on board the new principles expounded by the 1992 Rio Earth Summit and its products – particularly Agenda 21 and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) – and prepared for its successor, the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD).

Shared priorities
The Jakarta Mandate of the CBD (1995) and its 1998 Programme of Action, represented a fresh and progressive approach to managing and using marine and coastal resources sustainably. It reinforced the priorities of the Regional Seas Programmes – soon to be echoed by WSSD and its Plan of Implementation – including the conviction that integrated marine and coastal area management is the best implementation tool. More recently, the Seventh Meeting of the Conference of Parties to the CBD adopted a series of important resolutions related to the conservation of the biodiversity of marine and coastal ecosystems, which further reflect the shared priorities of the Regional Seas and their global partners.

UNEP has singled out small island developing states (SIDS) for greater attention. Their marine and coastal environments are vital resources for socioeconomic development. Marine species provide food, medicines and ingredients for industrial products. Coastal ecosystems. such as coral reefs, mangroves, seagrass beds, estuaries, coastal lagoons and wetlands, are essential as nursery grounds for commercial fish species, protectors of shorelines from storms, and buffers for the impacts of land-based activities. Clean sandy beaches, offshore coral reefs and a lack of industrial development provide a base for tourism. These resources are both limited and concentrated, and so particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of coastal degradation. They are already disproportionately threatened by natural disasters, climate change and sea-level rise.

Efforts to safeguard their coastal environments are quickly moving up the list of international priorities. The Regional Seas Programme is being called upon to play a central role, partly because all SIDS are part of at least one Regional Seas Programme, and partly because the programme already has in place globally coordinated, region-wide mechanisms to implement environmental agreements and initiatives.

The 1994 Programme of Action for the Sustainable Development of SIDS (SIDS/POA) asks for the ‘establishment and/or strengthening of programmes within the framework of the Global Programme of Action and the Regional Seas Programmes, to assess the impact of planning and development on the coastal environment, including coastal communities, wetlands, coral reefs habitats and the areas under the national jurisdiction of SIDS and to implement the POA’. The WSSD Plan of Implementation identifies the Regional Seas Programme and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea as key actors for implementing SIDS activities related to the marine environment.

SIDS dominate the South Pacific and the Wider Caribbean regional programmes, and are also members of the Mediterranean Action Plan, the East Asian Seas Action Plan, the South Asia Seas Programme, and the Convention for the Protection, Management and Development of the Marine and Coastal Environment of the Eastern African Region (Nairobi Convention). The GPA Coordination Office harmonizes UNEP’s SIDS activities and addresses land-based activities at the national level through national programmes of action, within the context of the Regional Seas Programmes.

Coral reefs are one of the SIDS’ most important and extensive ecosystems, so many of UNEP’s activities are based on close partnerships with groups and initiatives devoted to protecting them. The activities – too numerous to mention here – are based on many international partnerships, such as those with the International Coral Reef Initiative (ICRI), the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network (GCRMN), the International Coral Reef Information Network (ICRIN) and the International Coral Reef Action Network (ICRAN). They are aimed at promoting ‘on the ground’ actions and good practices for coral reef management and conservation through partnerships with the world’s leading science and conservation organizations in the field.

Important role
Agenda 21, the WSSD Plan of Implementation and the new global strategy have given the Regional Seas Programme a mandate and a roadmap for the years ahead. But there are still many roadblocks to overcome, such as lack of political will, insufficient financing and competition with such overriding concerns as war or poverty.

A new era of environmental action is emerging, focusing on practical implementation of the principles of sustainable development. The Regional Seas Programme has had – and continues to have – an important role in sustainable development. Given its achievements, built upon modest resources, it has provided excellent value for money in its first three decades

Ellik Adler is Regional Seas Programme Coordinator, UNEP.

PHOTOGRAPH: Urmila Mehandra/UNEP/Topham

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Töpfer | Into the mainstream | Creation’s forgotten days | Restoring a pearl | Stop my nation vanishing | Energy release | Oceans need mountains | People | An ocean corridor | At a glance: Seas, oceans and small islands | Profile: Cesaria Evora | No island is an island | Small islands, big potential | Small is vulnerable | Natural resilience | Books and products | Keeping oil from troubled waters | Redressing the balance | Neighbours without borders | Will Mother Nature wait? | Pacific canaries

Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on Water, 1996
Issue on Oceans, 1998
Issue on Small Islands, 1999
Michael E. Huber: Deep waters, high stakes (Biological Diversity) 2000
Thilo Bode: Sea changes (The Environment Millennium) 2000
Issue on World Summit on Sustainable Development, 2002
Issue on World Heritage and Protected Areas, 2003

AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment: