Billions of people rely directly or indirectly on the bounty of the world’s oceans and coastal waters.
From fisheries to coral reefs, the marine world generates income, provides livelihoods and is a vital source of protein for coastal communities across the world’s Continents. Yet a rising tide of pollution, 80 per cent of which originates from the land, is threatening this wealth by contaminating ecosystems with chemicals, sewage, sediments, pesticides, heavy metals and a range of other impacts. Physical destruction of the coastline is also a growing concern as increasing numbers of people move to the eight per cent of land that is the interface between terra firma and the marine environment.
The principle international response to these issues is the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Global Programme of Action (GPA) for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-Based Sources. The GPA is catalyzing action among governments and, since established in 1995, can point to some important successes not least in the area of cutting oil discharges from the land to the sea alongside assisting in the raising of funds and promoting anti-pollution laws and legislation in countries of both the developed and developing world. But it is clear that governments need to do much more if the promise of healthy and productive and sustainably harvested seas and oceans is to be realized for this and future generations.
This is given even greater urgency by the climate change that is already underway. We need a twin track approach to climate change that eventually involves cutting the emissions of greenhouse gases by up to 80 per cent in order to stabilize the atmosphere. However, we also need adaptation in order to assist countries especially developing nations, to cope with some level of climate change already ‘factored into’ the system before the big and necessary cuts are realized.
It is clear from this rapid response report that part of the adaptation package must include reductions in the levels of pollution from land-based sources. The team has looked at the recovery of reefs following the massive, climate-linked, bleaching events of the late 1990s and made an important link between rates of recovery and the levels of pollution to which reefs are being exposed. One is left with the inescapable conclusion that the ability of habitats and ecosystems to survive and to recover from extreme temperature events and other likely climatic impacts is going to be related to how well and how sustainably we manage these natural or “nature-based” resources now and over the years to come. These will be important considerations for not only marine based natural resources like coral reefs and mangroves but also terrestrial ones from forests and river systems to wetlands and heathlands.
In doing so we can hopefully help sustain healthy and productive ecosystem services so that they continue to provide food up to purification services – in short a habitable planet – well into what is likely to become a climatically less stable future.
United Nations Under Secretary General
Executive Director United Nations Environment Programme