Land and sea
OMAR VIDAL and WALTER RAST
explain the history and outreach of a new Global
Programme of Action for protecting the seas from
activities on land
A glance at the globe readily highlights the prominence of
the oceans. But though they cover about three-quarters of the Earth's
surface, their ecological or economic significance is often not
They have, for example, a fundamental role in regulating global
temperatures and weather patterns as primary sinks for atmospheric carbon
dioxide. Meanwhile coastal coral reefs, sea grass beds and mangrove swamps
all perform important ecological functions.
The oceans provide massive quantities of fish, primary sources of protein
for many millions of people and play a prominent role in economic
development. Tourism is a major economic activity in many coastal areas
and small island developing states. By the year 2000, it is estimated,
about 75 per cent of the world's population will live within 60 kilometres
of a coast, ensuring that the oceans will be increasingly important for
commerce and other economic activities.
Managing the quality of the marine environment is therefore fundamentally
important on the local, regional and global scale. But effective
management cannot be achieved without considering its basic linkages with
other components of the biospheres. As part of the hydrological cycle,
water falls to the Earth's surface as rain and snow. As it then moves over
the land, it carries materials to rivers, lakes and ultimately the oceans.
Coastal areas are the interface between water draining from inland river
basins and the oceans, and can therefore receive high concentrations of
natural and anthropogenic materials, including minerals, soils, nutrients
and organic materials. This pollution can readily affect the quality of
coastal waters, and the ability of humans and marine life to use them.
About 80 per cent of all marine pollution is caused by human activities on
land such as urbanization, agriculture, tourism, industrial development,
inadequately treated discharges of sewage and industrial wastes, and
construction of coastal infrastructure. These can destroy or degrade
vitally important habitats for marine species, and cause coastal erosion
and siltation, which affect the health and productivity of the marine
Last year UNEP organized an Intergovernmental Conference involving 109
countries because of global concern about the marine environment. Hosted
by the United States in Washington from 23 October to 3 November 1995, it
adopted the Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine
Environment from Land-Based Activities (GPA). The primary goal of the GPA
is to assist governments to take actions aimed at prevention, control and
reduction of the degradation of the marine environment and associated
freshwater systems from land-based activities. Its basic objectives are:
- To maintain and improve the productive capacity of the aquatic
- To ensure the protection of human health.
- To promote the conservation and sustainable use of marine living
This was the culmination of more than 13 years of efforts undertaken by
UNEP, in close cooperation with many international governmental and
non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The process originated in May 1982
with UNEP Governing Council decision 10/24, which was a basis for a number
of follow-up actions:
- A Working Group of Experts was established in 1983, resulting in the
1985 Montreal Guidelines for the Protection of the Marine Environment
against Pollution from Land-Based Sources. UNEP's Governing Council
adopted the guidelines in its decision 13/18 (24 May 1985).
- Following an initial UNEP review in 1985, the Group of Experts on the
Scientific Aspects of Marine Pollution (GESAMP) completed a second review
of the state of the marine environment in 1990, concluding that the global
causes of immediate concern to the marine environment included coastal
development and attendant destruction of habitats, eutrophication and
microbial contamination of seafood and beaches.
- In May 1991 The Intergovernmental Meeting of Experts on Land-Based
Sources of Pollution considered principles for the protection of the
marine environment from pollution from land-based sources, and relevant
scientific, social, economic and legal elements. It recommended a
coherent, comprehensive strategy to address problems of land-based sources
of marine pollution.
- In December 1991, UNEP's Executive Director convened a meeting of
government-designated experts to formulate a draft strategy for reduction
of the degradation of the marine environment from land-based sources of
pollution and activities in coastal areas (thus implementing Governing
Council decision 16/26A, May 1991). The meeting recognized the need for
national, regional and global elements of the strategy while indicating
that particular problems in various countries and regions might require
different application of the strategy elements.
- UNEP's Governing Council designated protection of the aquatic
environment from land-based activities as an important area of follow-up
to the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development,
following recommendations outlined in Chapters 17 and 18 of Agenda 21. It
also authorized the Executive Director to organize an intergovernmental
conference to adopt a programme of action for the protection of the marine
environment from land-based activities. A number of preparatory meetings
were held, culminating in the Washington Conference.
Governments at the Washington Conference welcomed UNEP's offer to
coordinate the GPA, selected UNEP to carry out its Secretariat functions
and gave it the task of promoting and facilitating its implementation at
national, regional and global levels. This included a revitalization of
UNEP's Regional Seas Programmes, which currently comprise 13 regions with
140 participating States, 16 United Nations agencies and nearly 50 other
international and regional organizations, all working closely with UNEP to
protect and improve the marine environment and make environmentally
sustainable use of marine and coastal resources. UNEP is to work in close
cooperation with relevant United Nations agencies and competent
international governmental organizations and NGOs in implementing the GPA.
UNEP, which has recently integrated its freshwater and coastal/ marine
programmes, recognizes that the hydrological linkage between land and
water imposes an urgent need for a comprehensive, integrated management
strategy which involves both coastal areas and their associated river
basins. No long-term strategy will succeed without this, because the
quality of coastal ecosystems is affected mainly by point sources and by
storm-related drainage from the land surface, whether discharged directly
into coastal areas or carried there by rivers.
UNEP's comprehensive, integrated water programme promotes international
cooperation in managing coastal/marine and associated freshwater drainage
basins, including land-based sources. (The needs of small island
developing states also present a special challenge.) UNEP's efforts
towards effectively implementing the GPA will be undertaken within this
framework and (in response to Governing Council decision 18/31, 25 May
1995) will be linked with UNEP's work on the problems of persistent
At the request of governments at the Conference, UNEP elaborated a plan
for institutional arrangements and implementing the GPA based on inputs
from its substantive programmes and units, Regional Seas Programmes, and
from successive consultations with United Nations and international
organizations, governments and NGOs in January and February 1996.
Later in February, the Inter-sessional ad hoc Working Group on Sectoral
Issues of the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) reviewed UNEP's
plan. It was also considered at the CSD's Fourth Session in New York (18
April- 3 May), as the basis for a draft resolution on institutional
arrangements for implementation of the GPA which will be considered at the
51st Session of the United Nations General Assembly in December 1996. UNEP
refined its implementation plan on the basis of this draft resolution and
the final plan is expected to be submitted to the 19th Session of UNEP's
Governing Council in January.
Effective implementation of the GPA will require coordinated national,
subregional and regional programmes of action, developed with the help of
the Regional Seas Programmes, and international cooperation, which will
play a central role in enhancing capacity-building, technology transfer
and cooperation and financial support. UNEP will maintain close
partnerships with other organizations and bodies, including regional
bodies supporting the implementation of Regional Seas Programmes and
international freshwater drainage basin agreements. It convened
intersecretariat and joint interagency/intersecretariat consultations in
May to facilitate this.
Facilitating the development and implementation of the action programmes,
cornerstones of the whole endeavour, will be a primary task for UNEP and
its partner agencies. Implementation of the GPA will be addressed
simultaneously at the national, regional and global levels through a
series of interlinked, parallel and partially overlapping activities.
There will be periodically updated reviews and assessments of land-based
sources and activities that affect the quality and uses of the marine,
coastal and associated freshwater environments. These will include impacts
of land-based activities requiring priority action, specific activities
undertaken to address them, and their results, and will be based primarily
on available data and information provided by governments, and on
databases of relevant regional programmes, United Nations agencies, and
intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations.
The first global review, which will be prepared by 1998, will be based on
existing regional reviews within the framework of regional programmes.
GESAMP established a Working Group on Marine Environmental Assessments, at
its 26th Session in March, to review the state of the marine environment,
including impacts of land-based activities. Its recommended terms of
reference include 'to undertake major periodic assessments of the
condition of the marine environment with emphasis on the effects of, and
threats posed by, anthropogenic activities at approximately decadal
intervals; a report on Land-based Sources and Activities Affecting the
Quality and Uses of the Marine, Coastal and Associated Freshwater
Environment, will be a first step towards the next periodic assessment of
the state of the marine environment.' The Working Group first met in May
and set up a sub-group to prepare the report on land-based activities.
A series of regional workshops - which will comprise the areas represented
by UNEP's Regional Seas Programmes - are being organized by UNEP, in
cooperation with regional and international organizations, to refine and
implement the GPA. Four will be held in late 1996, the rest during 1997,
to develop Strategic Programmes for implementation at regional and
Addressing the complex problems inherent in protecting the coastal/marine
environment and its associated river basins by effectively implementing
the GPA initiative will require the collaborative efforts and commitment
of many relevant parties, organizations and governments. UNEP stands ready
to undertake its role in this new and challenging global endeavour.
Omar Vidal is Programme Officer and Walter Rast is Deputy Director,
Water Branch, UNEP.