Oceans need

Conrad C. Lautenbacher
explains that the health of seas and islands depends on ecosystems from ocean depths to mountain peaks, and describes an initiative starting in the Caribbean that acknowledges this

The rest of the world is finally coming around to what those who live on small islands and in coastal areas have known for some time – that the precious and pristine ecosystems upon which these communities depend for their livelihood are inextricably linked to every other ecosystem and to their influences upstream. The bad news is that the rest of the world is only just realizing this. The good news is that our actions to protect and restore these vital ecosystems are helping to improve them.

During the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development this basic understanding of the inter-relationships among ecosystems formed the foundation of the decision to create the White Water to Blue Water (WW2BW) partnership. As its name suggests, this explicitly acknowledges the interconnected nature of ecosystems from the tips of the highest mountains to the depths of the oceans and seeks to bring together key interests from upstream and downstream to work together for the betterment of the whole.

Widespread benefits
The vision of WW2BW is healthy, well-managed and productive marine and coastal ecosystems that support secure economies and livelihoods in coastal countries. In essence, coastal areas will not be able to achieve long-term sustainable development without a coordinated ecosystem-based management structure. However, the benefits are not just realized at the end of the line. Cleaning up the lakes, rivers, streams and watersheds that make up the white water part of the equation benefits all those who rely on them for their health and a sustainable economy.

Making such declarations is easy. The real challenge is putting processes in motion that begin working on actionable measures. A year and a half after the inception of White Water to Blue Water, the Wider Caribbean region has become the launching point for what will hopefully evolve into a worldwide initiative.

The underlying assertion is that sustainable development for the wider Caribbean – and other primarily coastal and island regions – cannot take place without healthy watersheds and marine ecosystems. The ultimate goal will be to share knowledge and experiences gained in the Wider Caribbean so as to have an impact on small island and coastal communities around the world.

This is not a problem that can be handled at the local, regional or even national level. It is truly a worldwide one and will require the collective resources of the world to address. Consider the following, for instance:

  • Today, more than 50 per cent of the world’s population lives in coastal areas and depends heavily on oceans and coastal resources for survival. By 2025, 75 per cent of the world’s population will live in coastal areas.

  • In many developing countries, fish may account for up to 60 per cent of the animal protein consumed; yet some 70 per cent of the world’s fish stocks are fully fished, or overfished.

  • Worldwide shipping is expected to triple over the next 20 years.

  • About 25 per cent of the world’s coral reefs have been lost within the past two decades.

In small islands and coastal regions, these natural systems are the basis for sustainable economic development.

Overfishing, pollution, degradation of habitats and natural disasters are increasingly undermining the ability of coastal populations to meet basic human needs. The result is missed opportunities for sustainable development and new job creation.

If we are going to achieve sustainable development, at any level:

  • We need better use of existing and potential resources at both the national and regional levels.

  • We need better recognition of the benefits of regional and cross-border cooperation among all groups.

  • We need to improve the capacities of coastal states to manage entire coastal-marine ecosystems.

  • We need to treat the primary cause of marine pollution – that which occurs upstream in the watersheds, forests, farms and cities. Upland sources deliver pollutants into wetlands, mangrove swamps and coral reefs – the nurseries for most of the commercial species on which human populations depend. Ultimately these pollutants find their way into our oceans.

These goals cannot be achieved by one party or a small group of interested people. The environment we seek to improve is complex and interconnected and our method of dealing with it will require equal complexity. WW2BW is already beginning to accomplish this by bringing together stakeholders to focus their attention and resources on these problems.

In March, WW2BW partners had their first ever meeting in Miami. This week-long conference and training session helped facilitate partnerships and allowed key players to exchange best practices and encourage innovation. The conference was the launching point for key achievements including the establishment of the International Corporate Wetlands Restoration Partnership (ICWRP) for the protection, enhancement and restoration of wetlands that have been designated as Ramsar or World Heritage Sites or both, around the world, as well as the announcement of the first project, sponsored by Gillette, in Sian Ka'an, Mexico.

New beginning
The Miami conference saw the establishment of the GPA North American Node, jointly sponsored by UNEP and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and headquartered at NOAA’s National Ocean Service. This represents a commitment on the part of NOAA and UNEP to work together to provide technical assistance, information and links to expertise in order to protect the valuable marine environment from pollution from land-based activities.

The establishment of the Node is both a culmination of many years of collaboration between NOAA and UNEP on this topic, and a new beginning. NOAA’s engagement pre-dates the establishment of the GPA office, beginning with the negotiation of the Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities in Washington DC in 1995. Since that time, NOAA and the GPA office have worked closely together to ensure that the ‘words on paper’ would not be the endpoint, but that they would guide actions, projects and progress, on the ground and with support at the regional and bilateral levels. This vision, and the dedication to its fulfilment, are due in large part to the efforts of Tom Laughlin, NOAA’s Deputy Director for International Affairs, and Veerle Vanderweerd, Coordinator, GPA, heading the UNEP-GPA office in the Hague.

Working together
Clearly, the Caribbean is one of many regions that will benefit from integrated approaches. The lessons currently being learned will serve as a model for other countries, partners and stakeholders who wish to solve some of the key problems in the search for sustainable development.

US astronaut Neil Armstrong once noted that science has not yet mastered prophecy. We predict too much for the next year, and yet far too little for the next ten. Working in partnerships, networking, brainstorming, together we can surely exceed our goals not only in the short term, but for generations to come.

The responsibility for healthy oceans and coasts rests on all our shoulders, and cannot be carried by government alone. Sustainable development requires cooperation among the full range of stakeholders, upstream and downstream

Vice Admiral Conrad C. Lautenbacher Jr,, US Navy (Ret.) is US Undersecretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere, and Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration .

PHOTOGRAPH: OAR/National Undersea Research Program (NURP)

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
Issue on World Summit on Sustainable Development, 2002
Issue on Mountains and Ecotourism, 2002
Wayne Gilchrest: Keeping pollution at bay (Freshwater) 2003

AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment: