The wings of life

OUR PLANET 9.5 - Oceans

The wings of life


explores humanity's new relationship with the sea, and outlines the aims of the International Year of the Ocean


When the United Nations declared 1998 International Year of the Ocean, the time was right. The 'background' needed to understand the oceans, both in terms of science and technology and in terms of political will, was in place. A regulatory framework also existed, with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which came into force in 1994. Other important conventions and agreements, some open for signature, others being drafted, will complete this framework.

As we reach the end of the millennium, humanity's interaction with the ocean is entering a new phase - one that will call increasingly on these laws and agreements, because the sustainability of our relationship with the sea is in danger. This needs to be understood by as many people as possible, so that we are all empowered to take responsibility whenever possible.

Vasco da GamaOur relationship with the ocean has profoundly changed since the Renaissance voyages that led Vasco da Gama, Magellan, Columbus, Drake and others to the discovery of new lands and unknown peoples and cultures - guided by the stars, for they were remarkable astronomers. Then, the ocean was seen mainly as a means of travel, albeit a challenging one. The conflicts that arose were about territories, about trade routes. It was the surface of the sea that was being fought over, as if it were an extension of the land.

This century, the picture has been dramatically transformed, especially since the end of the Second World War. Technological inventions made it possible to explore first below the sea's surface and now the deep ocean bed. There is growing interest in the seas for previously hidden marine resources - minerals, oil, fish and so forth. Accurate charts and global satellite positioning systems make it possible for factory ships to spend months fishing thousands of miles away from their home waters. Not only are we much more aware of marine resources, but we are more aware of risks to the ocean's health - which is deteriorating because of growing population pressure along the coasts. Two-thirds of humanity actually live within 60 kilometres of the coast.

MagellanMany marine resources remain to be discovered and utilized for the benefit of mankind. A good example is the recent discovery of new forms of life in hot, toxic, deep-sea volcanic vents. These can have important applications, through biotechnology, in industry and pharmaceuticals. The same is true for less exotic forms of marine biodiversity, such as algae, that already form the basis for important applications in medicine.

The various United Nations institutions are very much involved in protecting the oceans for the long-term interests of humankind. The scale and globality of the oceans - which cover over 70 per cent of the Earth's surface - rule out effective care and management by a single nation or group of nations. The Law of the Sea, ratified by 124 nations, is a highly significant piece of international legislation. It gives both developing and developed coastal countries a 200-mile area of the ocean: water is becoming part of 'territory'. Its Tribunal provides neutral means to settle disputes peacefully if direct talks fail.


Caring for the oceans

The oceans drive the world climate as a system. They are the lungs of the Earth. The worldwide effects of El Niño are perhaps the most dramatic example. We must learn, starting in school, to care for the ocean. The scientific community has a special responsibility. UNESCO's Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) coordinates scientific research between its 120 member states. With other agencies of the United Nations system, including the World Meteorological Organization and UNEP, IOC is setting up a Global Ocean Observing System to enable scientists to cooperate and share data on sea-level rise, pollution, climate research, marine resources, coastal management and services such as tsunami wave early warning.

So, what do we expect of this International Year of the Ocean? First, of course, that as many people should be as well informed as possible about what is at stake. We are promoting all kinds of educational activities, bringing ocean issues into the classroom. There are special teaching cruises on board oceanographic research vessels. The United Nations pavilion at EXPO'98 in Lisbon will use advanced multimedia techniques to bring the ocean message to millions of visitors. Only through knowledge can we change behaviour.

ColumbusUNESCO and its IOC, jointly with other United Nations agencies such as UNEP, the International Maritime Organization, the International Atomic Energy Agency and the World Meteorological Organization, are providing opportunities for scientists to pool their knowledge and experience at seminars and conferences. The UNESCO Chairs scheme is providing professorial exchanges between universities in developed and developing countries in ocean-related subjects.

Another initiative is the Ocean Charter, launched during the Summit of the Sea conference in St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada, in 1997. It is not a legally binding document but a declaration of commitment to initiate and respect cooperative actions to preserve the oceans and coastal areas. UNESCO is at present drafting legislation to protect our underwater cultural heritage. While we have been instrumental in giving protection to over 500 land-based sites of outstanding natural beauty, or of cultural or historical interest, no such protection is given to underwater sites. There is little at present to stop anyone looting underwater archaeological sites and wrecks.

kids playing in water

Action now

But awareness is only the first step. We need to act. This can happen at all levels, from a local beach clean-up campaign to regional cooperation in coastal management or global data-sharing on climate change. Finding ways to bring together municipal departments responsible for tourism, for construction, for sewage treatment, aquaculture and forestry, would already be a massive step towards more sustainable coastal management.

We must not only take into account the consequences of the everyday behaviour of those living along the coasts but also of those living along the rivers which flow into the sea. Two years from the end of the millennium, we are exploring the surface of Mars. But to paraphrase the poet Robert Frost, let us not forget that our own deserted spaces, much nearer home, are still the ones that need to be addressed first.

Life originated in the ocean millions of years ago. Today, life depends on the oceans. They were the roots of life. Now they are its wings.

Federico Mayor is Director-General of UNESCO.

Complementary articles in other issues:
Jane Lubchenco: Beware an ecological tsunami (Water) 1996
Federico Mayor: Crucible for a common ethic (Culture, values and the environment) 1996

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