Oceans Editorial

Our Planet - Oceans


KLAUS Toepfer

United Nations Under-Secretary General
and Executive Director, UNEP


On 5 June every year, the global community comes together to celebrate World Environment Day. At the heart of the celebrations is the belief that every individual human being has the right to enjoy clean air, pure water and the benefits of our biological diversity.

It is appropriate that in this Year of the Ocean, a symbolically compelling theme, 'For Life on Earth: Save Our Seas', has been chosen for this year's World Environment Day.

Our oceans are a source of life. Their resources are not inexhaustible. Neither is their ability to endlessly absorb waste. The oceans and seas are not static. They are in a constant state of flux and movement. Daily they receive polluted wastes from lakes and rivers all over the world and directly or indirectly the sewers and effluents from all the world's countless cities and farmlands.

Oceans have no respect for the artificial boundaries drawn by man. Pollutants introduced at one point, particularly the persistent non-biodegradable types, can spread very far from their points of origin.

Clearly, our simplistic vision of an endless ocean must change. We all tend to feel at times that once a polluted river empties into the open seas, once the urban sewage systems lead far enough out to sea, all waste will simply disappear into the endless ocean.

Full capacity

With changing land-use patterns due to the pressures of an ever increasing population, with the development of industries, with the massive use of agro-chemicals, the oceans have reached the limits of their capacity to assimilate the waste generated by man. Some 77 per cent of the

pollution of our oceans can be traced to land-based sources. It is frightening to reflect that 98 per cent of lead enters the oceans through the atmosphere as do 80 to 99 per cent of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and DDT.

The state of world fisheries - an important component of food security - presents a readily measured example of the overexploitation of the ecosystem. With 77.7 per cent of the global fish catch coming from the oceans, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reported in 1993 that over two-thirds of the world's marine fish stocks were being fished at or above their level of maximum productivity. Around the world, there are numerous disputes related largely to the ability of countries to exploit marine resources.

The oceans demonstrate many of the complexities and sensitivities which characterize the continuing debate about the achievement of sustainable development and the challenges that we face at local, national, regional and international levels.

Technology has a pivotal role in helping us to maintain and improve the marine environment.

We need technological skills and innovative ways to reduce the generation of wastes at source.

We need significant improvements in waste recycling and waste treatment technologies.

Thankfully, there is a significant and growing environmental industry around the world capable of providing solutions rather than problems.

At UNEP, our effort has been to establish an integrated, comprehensive and consolidated approach to the issues related to the marine environment.

UNEP's Regional Seas Programme is a model that works. In 13 centres around the world, coordinating units work with governments to address shared problems of pollution and coastal degradation in shared seas. Many of the lessons and experiences gained through the Regional Seas Programme are being applied to the latest institutional mechanism aimed at addressing land-based sources of marine pollution - the Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities (GPA).

Acknowledging links

The GPA acknowledges the linkages between public health and the maintenance of the health of marine ecosystems. It focuses on the reduction and elimination of pollution by organo-halogens and other persistent organic pollutants identified in Agenda 21, the progressive development of international law to focus on preventive action, and the development of management approaches at relevant international forums along with the promotion of their further application.

As we commemorate World Environment Day in the Year of the Ocean, let us aim much higher than creating a year of awareness-raising. Let us boldly plan to achieve some real results

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