Cleaning the Seas

OUR PLANET 9.5 - Oceans



Cleaning the Seas



TERTTU MELVASALO

describes UNEP's work, through its Regional Seas Programme, to implement the Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities





clean-upUNEPis dedicating the International Year of the Ocean to helping implement the Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities (GPA) in all areas of its Regional Seas Programme. UNEP aims to ensure that the over 140 participating countries include the GPA's provisions and commitments in their long-term regional and national activities. This could involve changes in existing regional marine environment protection conventions, amendments introduced either by new or revised protocols or without any legally-binding instruments, and approving appropriate priority activities in the intergovernmental Regional Seas Action Plans.

November 1995 was an historic moment for the protection of the marine environment. More than 100 countries declared their commitment to protect and preserve it from the harmful effects of land-based activities at an intergovernmental conference in Washington D.C., hosted by the Government of the United States. UNEP was invited to act as the Secretariat for the GPA, cooperating closely with all partners including United Nations agencies and bodies as well as governmental and non-governmental organizations. The governments particularly emphasized that, as an overriding goal, no new bodies should be established and that UNEP's Regional Seas Programme provided an important globally coordinated, region-wide mechanism to help governments implement the GPA.

The GPA's main purpose is to identify the sources of land-based pollution or harmful activities, and to prepare regional, sub-regional and national priority action programmes on measures to reduce and alleviate them. As it targets pollution from the whole of a seas catchment area, the GPA concentrates not just on problems originating near the shores - such as discharges from megacities, other urban areas, harbours or industrial enterprises in the coastal zone - but also on diffuse sources of pollution such as agriculture, forestry, aquaculture and tourism; sometimes, even, from landlocked countries which contribute to the contamination of the sea through rivers that cross their boundaries.

Pollution enters rivers from activities in rural areas, as well as from industrial zones and cities throughout the drainage basin, with a great deal of pollution - such as nutrients (phosphorous and nitrogen compounds), organic matter and pesticides - originating from agricultural and other farm activities, often far from the coast.



Air pollution

Inland emissions, erosion, land use and other activities also release soil and a variety of materials into the air. Because some of these substances - including heavy metals and bioaccumulative persistent organic substances - are carried by the winds to harm coastal and marine areas, reducing airborne pollution is part of the GPA's integrated programme. Only through an integrated approach, where freshwaters are ranked as equally important as coastal waters or the open ocean, is it possible to protect the sea.

The Regional Seas Programme provides a mechanism through which countries on the shores of a regional sea such as the Mediterranean, Black Sea or Red Sea, or those sharing a region, such as the wider Caribbean, can combine to protect their common property: the marine environment and its living resources. But because remarkable amounts of pollution also originate far from the sea, sometimes in landlocked countries, it is extremely important that an intergovernmental mechanism provide a forum for negotiations for peacefully solving conflicting demands for water use. Expanding the Regional Seas activities to cover regional cooperation in implementing the GPA provides a forum for transboundary river basins to be linked to the regional seas.

The action-oriented Regional Seas Programme was established more than 20 years ago, following the 1972 Stockholm Conference and the establishment of UNEP. It was developed step by step, region by region, and now comprises 13 regions: the Mediterranean Sea, the Wider Caribbean region, the East Asian Seas region, the South-East Pacific region, the North-West Pacific region, the South Pacific region, Kuwait region, the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, the Black Sea, the South Asian seas, the Eastern African sea area, West and Central Africa and Southwest Atlantic. A fourteenth regional sea, the North-East Pacific, is currently under negotiation.

Regional Seas Programme activities are formally approved by meetings of the region's governments. These usually include environmental assessment, management, legislation, and institutional and financial arrangements. Either UNEP acts as the interim Secretariat of the Action Plan, or an appropriate regional body is designated as the Secretariat, pending the establishment of a Regional Coordination Unit, as has already been set up, for example, in Athens, Kingston, Bangkok, the Seychelles and Abidjan.

UNEP continues to provide secretariat functions for some Regional Seas from its Headquarters in Nairobi. For others, the Secretariat is hosted by regional organizations, for example, in Kuwait, Jeddah, Lima, Colombo, Apia and Istanbul. Activities are carried out by national institutions in the regions: the main funding for them is administered through trust funds provided by the region's governments.

Many Regional Seas Programme member governments have a jointly approved legal framework for these activities in the form of regional conventions and protocols, for example on protecting marine areas, wild fauna and flora, and on cooperating in combating marine pollution emergencies. The long-term goal is to assist countries, through UNEP's Regional Seas mechanism, to implement all relevant global environmental conventions and other agreements, including the Law of the Sea, the London Convention and International Maritime Organization regulations and other instruments.



Implementing the GPA

UNEP, through its Regional Seas Programme, has organized several regional workshops in cooperation with governments to consider information on the impacts of land-based activities, and to review the main sources of pollution and harmful activities, as part of the process of implementing the GPA. The governments of some regions, together with UNEP, subsequently drafted Priority Action Programmes for reducing the pollution and environmental damage caused by land-based activities. A joint comprehensive assessment on the state of the marine environment is also being prepared.

UNEP has also established a technical coordination office in The Hague, supported by the Government of The Netherlands, to help implement the GPA. This will, amongst other activities, provide an interorganizational clearing-house, linked to different information delivery mechanisms, to provide access to relevant data and information services. These include cooperating with relevant United Nations organizations - especially those designated as lead agencies for particular pollution-source categories - in implementing the GPA, as well as with other interested partners. On the basis of such activities, we in UNEP will continue to work to improve the quality of the global water environment.

Terttu Melvasalo is Director of UNEP's Water Branch.



Complementary articles in other issues:
Frank A. Campbell: Whispers and waste (Small Islands) 1999
Eileen B. Claussen: Critical coastlines (UNEP 25) 1997
Jane Lubchenco: Beware an ecological tsunami (Water) 1996
Omar Vidal and Walter Rast: Land and sea (Water) 1996



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