Oceans: The great, near forgotten commons

2010-06-07 11:08

Champions of the ocean’s cause are quick to point out that more than half the world’s population live in coastal areas. This statistic is raised together with reminding one that 97% of the planet’s water is in the ocean and that more than 70% of the planet’s surface is in fact ocean. All of this is quoted to emphasise that with the oceans dominating the world ecosystems and with so many people directly associated with the coast, world leaders must make the obvious link to the security and livelihood vulnerabilities and opportunities that stem from the ocean.

In South Africa, the generation of revenue is anchored in terrestrially based activities, and the link to your  dependence on the oceans is not obvious. There is however much scope to develop the economic potential of the oceans within South African territories and in adjacent high seas. South Africa is bordered by large areas of ocean with significant territory within sovereign jurisdiction under the ocean. This scenario is likely to increase dramatically over the next few years as South Africa has officially, through the United Nations, claimed all of the submarine continental shelf extending from the main national coastline, and large areas extending from the two little known South African southern ocean island territories.

The vast ocean expanse that is accessible to South Africa bestows a potentially privileged position to lead aspects of the oceans investigation and information generation. This privilege is due to the country’s fortunate position – being centrally located between the Indian and Atlantic Oceans and just above the Southern Ocean. South Africa can use this advantage in developing its status as a location of knowledge generation that has national, regional and international relevance.

Many maritime nations such as India, Brazil, Australia, Canada and Norway have in their ocean policies recognised the need for the ocean’s conservation, while acknowledging that the ocean has the potential to deliver an expanding set of socio-economic services that advances in technology allow.

These new services include sources of protein from a range of animals, including algae, plankton and fish; medical extracts from living and non-living ocean resources; and renewable energy production from ocean currents, winds and tidal movements.

While noting the novel ocean applications, there is also an increasing realisation that the ocean has always and continues to provide some fundamental planetary services in regulating climate, weather and rainfall, and also importantly the absorption of atmospheric carbon. This appreciation of the significant carbon absorption function raises the profile of oceans in the climate change debate.

South Africa’s largely fortunate geographic position does however carry a burden. The country is exposed to increases in the frequency and strength of storms or changes in rainfall patterns that impact various sectors, including the agricultural sector. These topics build on their relevance in the climate change debate that aims to make explicit these implications for national planning.

In recognising the potential of the ocean to provide beneficial goods and services as well as potential environmental impacts of procuring them, many nations are reviewing or developing oceans policies and legislation. Some such as France and the USA are in the process of structuring their ocean policies. South Africa will soon embark on such a process to establish its oceans policy.

For more information click on the following link: http://www.environment.gov.za

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