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WednesdaysForWater#: Pollution, climate change 'impacting' oceanic life, livelihood

By Megha Gupta, Dr Fawzia Tarannum, Dr Mansee Bal Bhargava*

Our oceans drive all other systems making the earth inhabitable for humankind. Throughout history, oceans (and other waterbodies like seas, rivers and even large lakes) have been crucial source of livelihood for the coastal communities besides connecting lands for trade through transportation. In the last century of rapid industrialisation and allied urbanisation process, the oceans life is impacted negatively further impacting the lives and livelihoods of the people dependent on them directly.
While the Sustainable Development Goals or Global Goals like the SDG 13,14,15 are directly addressing the ocean matters, the United Nations has further declared the years 2021-30 Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, in order to support efforts to reverse the cycle of decline in ocean health.
The United Nations has designated June 8 as World Oceans Day, a day for humanity to celebrate the ocean. ‘The Ocean: Life and Livelihoods’ was the theme for 2021, as well as a declaration of intentions that launched a decade of challenges to get the Sustainable Development Goal 14, ‘Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources’, by 2030.
To commemorate World Oceans Day this year, the team of Wednesdays for Water organized a webinar on the Wednesday, of June 9 on the topic, ‘Ocean(s) exploring their impact on Life and Livelihood’. Elsie Gabriel (National Coordinator & Ambassador for India, Ocean Quest Global International, Climate Reality India, Founder- Young Environmentalists Programme) and Swati Ganeshan (Area Convenor and Fellow, Centre for Resource Efficiency & Governance, TERI) were invited as speakers to discuss the state of the ocean and its impact on people’s life and livelihood. Parth Tandon (Student of TERI-SAS and Sub-Editor Vasundhara Magazine) was the discussant in the session.
One of us, Dr Fawzia Tarannum, introduced the session by emphasizing the importance of the oceans in regulating weather, climate, food, rainfall and even the oxygen that we breathe. The deterioration of the oceans, especially the coastlines is witnessed owing to the sea-level rise, pollution, ocean acidification among others which has resulted in the loss in livelihood and threat to the coastal communities furthermore with the frequent cyclonic storms and soil erosion.
India with a massive coastline of over 7500kms and it also figures in the top 10 countries in the Climate Risk Index. The cities of Mumbai and Kolkata are considered among the top two cities that are at high risk due to sea-level rise. In the last year, intense cyclones have been witnessed, most of them being classified as ‘very severe’ and affecting approximately 28 million people and causing economic losses of worth US$ 8.1 billion.
Oceans in India provide millions of jobs and maritime transport support 95% of the country's trading by volume. It contributes an estimated 4% to the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). In the fiscal year 2020-21, the Government of India has also significantly allocated funds to the development of fisheries, emphasizing on adopting technologically advanced deep-sea fishing vessels with modern supporting facilities for optimally harnessing the potential exclusive economic zones and the high seas.
The conversation kick-started with Swati Ganeshan sharing insights on the government’s effort to promote smart, sustainable and inclusive growth in maritime economic activities to generate employment opportunities. She stated that the presence of a healthy ocean will have a domino effect on the existing livelihood opportunities dependent on it.
The report published by the European Union in 2021, has comprehensively analysed the scope and size of the Blue Economy and described the marine based and the marine related activities that comes under its ambit. The people dependent on the Blue Economy in India can broadly be classified into two sectors - one the informal or the unclassified labourers and the other who form the part of the formally structured domains like the Ocean Sciences, Aquaculture and other such technology-centric departments.
Swati brought out that most of the Indian blue sector continues to be informal and is focussed more on traditional/artisanal fisheries. With the absence of robust systems and data, the communities thriving on this are usually at a disadvantage. The emphasis laid in the Blue Economy report on collating disaggregated data would help in creating a better set of indicators to formulate inclusive policies, schemes and other initiatives that are much more directed at creating capacity and building human resources.
For example, the plight of the informal labourers who work in a highly dangerous and unsafe environment Ship-breaking sector. Such sectors could be improved in terms of safety, security and sustainability. India now has ratified the Hong Kong International Convention, the treaty that will set global standards for safe and environmentally sound ship recycling. In marine related activities, the coastal tourism division has also been highly affected in recent time, especially post-pandemic and a thorough study is needed to understand the gaps prior to proposing a plan of action.
As highlighted in the Blue Economy report, there is a need to look into the carrying capacity issues of many states and towns that support coastal tourism for bringing more sustainable changes in their system and thus open more avenues for livelihoods. This claim has also been supported by the High Panel for A Sustainable Ocean Economy in their report which states that over time, sustainable ocean management could help the ocean produce as much as 6 times more food and generate 40 times more renewable energy than it currently does.
It can also contribute one-fifth of the reductions in greenhouse gas emissions needed to keep the world within the 1.5°C temperature rise limit set by the Paris Agreement goals by 2050. It shall help lift millions of people out of poverty, improve equity and gender balance, increase economic and environmental resilience, build the industries of the future and provide low-carbon fuel and feed for activities on land.
These inputs, if adopted by India, could have a huge impact on the growing sector of deep-sea mining and marine technology. If adequate amendments are incorporated in the policies, India has the potential to not only generate and sustain traditional jobs but also create sustainable economic opportunities.
The conversation on engaging communities and bridging the gap between the scientific knowledge experts and the local populace by involving them in the decision making and implementation process was further taken by Elsie Gabriel.
Elsie discussed the various youth-centric activities that are organised through the Young Environmentalists Programme and shared her pedagogical approach especially for integration of experiential learning into academic learning.
Around the world, one million plastic drinking bottles are purchased every minute, while up to 5 trillion single-use plastic bags are used worldwide every year, most of them finding their way to the oceans. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the oceans are now carrying the additional burden of irresponsibly disposed masks as well. 
Her organisation has been engaged in saving the Powai Lake and the Mithi River in Mumbai and conducting several ocean drives and deep-sea diving to sensitize people. Emphasizing the impact of plastic pollution, she stressed on looking beyond just cleaning the plastics from the beaches and addressing the source where these are generated. She also brought out the issue of microplastics in the ocean water and on the oceans bed since the impact of those on the ocean ecosystem is extremely alarming.
Parth Tandon, referring to the youth of today, had similar insights to share as put forward by Fawzia, that, the so-called millennials, have the opportunity to contribute to achieving Sustainable Development Goals: including ending the poverty and hunger, improving the health and education, making the cities more sustainable, combating the climate change, and protecting the oceans and forests. He shared his insights of how youth associated with academic institutions can play their part in sustainable living and environmental protection.
According to him, the Eco Club at TERI-SAS plays its part by creating awareness through mediums of panel discussions, quizzes, poster competitions etc. Discussing the current issue of the Vasundhara magazine on the theme “Oceans”, he highlighted that the research work that goes behind publication helps students to deepen their knowledge about the recent climate crisis and comprehend that saving the ocean is not only saving the waterbody but also the vast marine ecosystem that thrives on these oceans.
The emerging environmental issue in Small Island Developing States was also discussed, wherein Coral reefs in islands like the Maldives, the Republic of Indonesia, Singapore and several others are threatened. Healthy coral reefs can contribute to the development of small island states, by providing income through tourism, ensuring local livelihoods and alleviating poverty, as well as acting as natural barriers against disasters such as tsunami.
They are also an important part of coastal tourism for islands like the Caribbean Islands where tourism plays an important part in the growth of the nation’s GDP. It’s important to spread this awareness amongst common people and one such medium could be advertisements, animations, media, comics and posters that are easily accessible to the public.
After the speakers take and the discussants arguments, the question and answer session between the speakers and the participants was extremely engaging. A question was raised on the proposed large-scale beachside tourism and infrastructure development in Lakshadweep island surrounded by the Arabian Sea and located about 200 kilometres off the west coast of Kerala.
Swati emphasized that Lakshadweep being a pristine environment, dealing with such places requires an abundance of caution to not vitiate it in any way. In such cases, a middle path to development can be adopted which is by following the policies mentioned in the Blue environment framework.
India intends to expand the Marine Spatial Planning in the Lakshadweep area through which it’s possible to develop various Marine Preserved Areas. These are most often established to promote the conservation of marine biodiversity, although they can also be used to benefit other interests such as fisheries, recreation and entertainment tourism.
Such initiatives help to keep the development more native and sustainable and also act as a tool to create livelihood and awareness by public exposure to the ocean’s vast biodiversity and treasure. Such arrangements can also be used to create reserves where public access could be regulated and kept to a minimum so that nature can thrive organically.
Elsie added to it on the total boycott of all sorts of plastic products in the interest of ocean protection. The Government of India had initiated the prohibition of usage of single-use plastic and proposed a Plastic Waste Management plan in 2019 but it lacked clarity on a lot of aspects such as the size and thickness of the material. Recently, an amended Draft Plastic Waste Management (Amendment) Rules, 2021 was published however, it is observed it might take time to implement it.
She encouraged the people to not get disheartened by this and initiate their household or neighbourhood audits of plastics that can be recycled or biodegraded. Her concern was that for the increasing single-use plastic waste rise during the pandemic in form of the PPE kits and the plastic masks which are ending up ultimately in the ocean bed.
Other topics of concern such as, usage of cosmetic products like sunscreens and their infiltration in the ocean and wastewater management in remote areas were discussed. Only a section of the society is aware of the impact created by similar hazardous chemical products. Therefore, a need for an increase in awareness is required for triggering behavioural change. One way of bringing the grass-root changes is by building a sense of responsibility amongst the people accessing the Oceans and incentivizing their efforts.
In response to a question on the pollution caused by the ships moored for long time in the ports and their effect on the reefs and corals underneath, the speakers shared that India has agreed to enforce IMO 2020 rule on both domestic and international shipping with the International Maritime Organization's low Sulphur mandate for marine fuels and it also remains committed to implementing the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL VI) regulations.
There are various other steps such as the UN Law of the Sea BBNJ Agreement on Biodiversity in Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction being already considered to decrease the human impact on ocean water and its biodiversity. The enforcement of such regulations is still quite weak, and thus plans are being proposed to create a Blue Policy Council which will form an umbrella platform for all the water-related ministries to integrate and work collectively by creating an institutional coherence.
This discussion on oceans life and livelihood was a clarion call especially for the youth for protecting the ocean. It emphasised the importance of institutions, policies, and the need for creating awareness amongst the ocean users and people at large.
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*Megha Gupta is Independent Scholar and Fellow at Eco-Development and Research Cell, Ahmedabad; Dr Fawzia Tarannum is Assistant Professor, TERI School of Advanced Studies, TERI-SAS, New Delhi; Dr Mansee Bal Bhargava is Entrepreneur, Researcher, Educator, Environmental Design Consultants, Ahmedabad. Other team members of #WednesdaysForWater: Prof Bibhu P Nayak (TISS-Hyd), Ganesh Shankar (FluxGen-Blr), Manisha Sharma, MeghaSanjaliwala, Vasantha Subbiah, Shrinivas M R, Jagpreet Singh, Pooja Choudhary, and counting. Click here, here, here and here to reach the WednesdaysForWater# team

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