Critical coastlines

Critical coastlines


outlines action to implement the Global Programme
of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment
from Land-based Activities

dry boat

Over half of the world's nearly 6 billion people live within 60 kilometres of the shoreline. This concentration of populations is largely the result of the tremendous productivity of coastal ecosystems, the health of which is vital to sustaining not only coastal communities but human society as a whole. These natural systems - including salt marshes, mangrove forests, coastal wetlands, coral reefs and estuaries - are under unprecedented stress from land-based activities. In fact, municipal, industrial and agricultural wastes and run-off account for some 70 to 80 per cent of all marine pollution. Pollution of the marine environment from land-based sources poses a major global environmental challenge for the 21st century.

Part of the problem in dealing with it is that its sources are enormously varied and difficult to control. They include sewage and waste water, persistent organic pollutants (including a number of pesticides), heavy metals, oils, nutrients and sediments. As the concentration of pollutants increases in our oceans and seas, the effects are becoming increasingly serious both for human beings and for the marine environment. For example, we now see more red tides, discover higher levels of carcinogens in the fish we eat, and find an increasing number of beaches off limits because of water-borne contaminants.

This pollution is a global problem, though the severity and type of pollution vary from country to country and region to region. In the developing world, the construction of basic sewage treatment facilities and the enforcement of rules on industrial and commercial effluent can often not keep pace with the tremendous economic and population growth being experienced in many coastal cities. Industrialized nations, too, still have major issues to resolve in controlling all the various forms of land-based activities that degrade marine systems.

A global perspective

It was not until the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) that nations tried to look at this issue from a global perspective. UNCLOS obligates Parties to protect and preserve the marine environment by cooperating regionally and globally, and to adopt laws and regulations to deal with land-based sources of marine pollution. The Oceans Chapter of Agenda 21 (approved at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development) called on UNEP to sponsor an intergovernmental meeting on the subject in an effort to see that these obligations and those contained in regional conventions and other environmental initiatives are implemented. This was held in November 1995 in Washington, D.C. and resulted in the adoption of the Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities by 109 governments.

This Global Programme of Action:

- Identifies practical steps to implement the legal obligations set forth in UNCLOS to prevent, reduce and control land-based marine pollution;

- Serves as a practical source of guidance for action at the national and regional levels;

- Initiates a long-term effort to identify and make available knowledge and experience about 'what works' in dealing with land-based marine pollution;

- Encourages international financial institutions and other donors to accord priority to dealing with land-based marine pollution in projects relating to coastal areas;

- Emphasizes the need for commitment by recipients at the national level to apply the full range of management tools and financing options available domestically.

The Global Programme of Action provides a solid framework with which to reverse the trend of continuing marine degradation from land-based activities. Making it work, however, will require sustained attention at every level - globally, regionally, nationally and locally.

Globally, UNEP must ensure the rapid establishment of a clearing-house to provide needed information about 'what works' in dealing with land-based marine pollution. We should make sure that such information exists in an accessible format for countries around the world. Several ideas about how to develop such a mechanism are currently circulating, and the UNEP Governing Council meeting affords an excellent opportunity to better define this important role.

Another critical step toward implementing the Global Programme of Action is the development of a legally-binding instrument to phase out and eliminate persistent organic pollutants (POPs). Such an agreement, which must be negotiated multilaterally, would address a major source of the land-based marine pollution problem. 1997 should see the formal beginning of negotiations toward this end.

Regionally, we must find new and better ways of developing cross-border cooperation in solving these problems. Several institutions offer an avenue to pursue in this regard. The Asia Pacific Economic Council (APEC) is a good example. APEC, which includes all the Pacific nations, recently launched several new initiatives - on Clean Oceans and Seas, Sustainable Cities and Clean Production. All three of these initiatives provide useful, though different, mechanisms for implementing the Global Programme of Action on a regional basis.

Another example is the newly created Arctic Council, which includes all eight Arctic nations and is designed to address concerns and challenges unique to this region. One major issue is pollution from POPs, radioactive elements and other sources which migrate thousands of miles on ocean currents and ultimately end up in the Arctic food chain. Dealing with this threat will almost certainly be a top priority for the Council as it evolves.

Effective implementation

Nationally, many countries have developed laws and regulations addressing the most serious aspects of land-based marine pollution, but much more attention needs to be paid to implementation. Again, what makes this so difficult is the diversity of land-based activities contributing to the problem. An effective regime must cover the industrial, agricultural and municipal sectors. There is also no getting around the fact that taking meaningful action can impose significant short-term economic costs. The challenge for governments is to muster the political will to make hard decisions today in order to avoid a much costlier situation tomorrow. In the United States alone, coastal areas provide 28 million jobs - many of which will cease to exist if fisheries are contaminated, tourist destinations fouled or public health problems exacerbated.

Locally, education is absolutely critical. In our increasingly urbanized societies, it is all too easy to forget how our daily activities affect the marine environment. The way we change the oil in our cars, the methods by which we apply pesticides in the garden, the choices we make about using toxic substances in our homes and the way we dispose of those substances - all of these actions end up affecting marine ecosystems. Changing our habits in response to environmental concerns requires massive education at the local level, yet the result of such an effort is sure to be a substantial reduction in the flow of pollutants into the marine environment.

The challenge for all nations, then, in implementing the Global Programme of Action, is to recognize that confronting the problem of land-based sources of marine pollution means being active from the court system to the multilateral convention, from the local library to the national legislature. Only through this kind of thorough approach can we hope to attain the goal of clean oceans and seas for this and future generations.

Eileen B. Claussen is Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, United States.

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