Land and sea

Land and sea


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 appreciated.

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 environment.

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 environment.

- To ensure the protection of human health.

- To promote the conservation and sustainable use of marine living resources.

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.

International cooperation

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 organic pollutants.

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.

Reviewing progress

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 national levels.

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.

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