Inching towards a Blue Economy


Pakistan’s policy makers have often faced criticism for turning a blind eye to the bounties the sea has to offer. The emergence of the port of Gwadar has, to be sure, not only generated awareness about the potential of the maritime sector but has also resulted in governmental approvals for the setting up of a new shipyard and new ship recycling facilities in this remote western outpost. There are other hopeful signs too: a new deepwater container port off Karachi, a coal handling terminal at Bin Qasim and two regasification terminals at the same port are now all functional, while a more determined offshore oil exploration effort is also underway after a gap of nine years.

Ask any maritime practitioner, or policy maker for that matter, about what it takes to become a maritime power, and this is exactly the sort of medicine he would prescribe: build more ports, build more terminals, construct more ships, operate more cargo vessels, develop more shipyards, set up more ship recycling facilities, and so on, conveniently forgetting that all these activities are spurred by market forces. The seeming profitability of public sector enterprises like Pakistan National Shipping Corporation, Karachi Shipyard & Engineering Works, Karachi Port Trust and Port Qasim Authority blindsides us to the true reality behind this facade. It is not a worthwhile bargain if their gain is at the expense of the consumer or the public exchequer. Genuine progress can never occur unless outmoded concepts like right of first refusal, dependence on captive cargo, uncompetitive bids and ruthless labour exploitation (as in the case of our ship recycling yards at Gadani) are replaced with the universally accepted ones of innovation, client satisfaction, foresightedness, efficiency and competitiveness. Audit and analysis are the first tottering steps towards improvement, for unless we absorb the lessons of the past, we will never be wiser tomorrow than we are today. While taking understandable pride in the port of Gwadar, let us not sidestep hard questions like how much revenue its port authority has generated so far since the completion of its first phase in December 2005? Or why hasn’t its Industrial Zone taken off yet? Or for that matter, when will KPT finally recoup the investment made in the much-heralded Karachi Deepwater Container Terminal (now known as the South Asian Port Terminal Ltd)? Or how long will our fish stocks last if present trends of overfishing, pollution and use of illegal fishing methods persist? And while being thankful to the ship recycling yards at Gadani for their valued contribution to the national exchequer, let us not forget to shed a tear at the ruthless exploitation of labour (sans any regulatory framework) which has made this possible. ‘However beautiful the strategy,’ Churchill is reported to have observed, ‘you should occasionally look at the results.’ And the results, in our case, should not purely be restricted to monetary statistics.

It is clear that we have chosen not to profit from our own mistakes. But if we decide to seek inspiration from those that have excelled in one maritime field or another, there are models aplenty. The example of the post-WW2 Japanese ship-building industry, overshadowing all other competition, followed in due course by South Korea and China, is frequently quoted. A small country like Denmark hosts the largest shipping company in the world (Maersk). The largest number of cargo ships are Greek-owned, most of them being in private hands. The port of Rotterdam continues to retain its top position in Europe’s highly competitive environment, owing to its edge in innovation and its emphasis on client satisfaction. Philippines, with hardly 1% of the world’s population, provides 20% of its seafarers. Vietnamese fish exports, most of it obtained through aquaculture, are touching the ten billion dollar mark.

A word of caution though, which our policy makers may do well to heed: no model can be blindly followed without similar pre-conditions existing. The best course of action is thus to study all such success stories, but chart an independent trail in sync with our national priorities and levels of competence.

Our obsession with the twin goddesses of hype and profitability prevents us perhaps from noticing a relatively new buzzword, that of the ‘blue economy’, which the global maritime community is all agog about. This concept was formally unveiled at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development held in Rio de Janeiro in 2012. Instead of focussing exclusively on economic growth, the ‘blue economy’ concept seeks to generate livelihoods and promote social inclusion, with the underlying premise, often ignored, that unless the health of the surrounding ocean and its fragile ecosystem is invested in, the social and economic benefits being derived will continue to decline. Apart from traditional coast and sea based activities, which forms our current area of interest, the blue economy continues to unfold and embrace multiple facets of the maritime economy. Its diverse components such as mariculture, offshore renewable energy, seabed extractive activities, marine biotechnology and marine bioprospecting possess the potential to offer dividends way beyond our wildest imagination.

In a blue economy, as mentioned earlier, the keyword is sustainability; this can however only be accomplished if the ocean and its fragile ecosystems are kept healthy and resilient enough to be able to support economic growth, not only to our benefit but also to that of our future generations.

The world in general has certainly not been kind to the oceans so far, with the shocking plunge in ocean health being directly linked to human activities. Sea warming, ocean acidity, mercury pollution and rise in seawater levels have been caused by the excessive amounts of anthropogenic carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that land processes have produced and that the oceans have been forced to absorb. The massive quantities of waste products being regularly spewed into the sea, with plastic products taking 450 years to degrade, has resulted in the creation of dead zones, with all this toxicity having combined to utterly devastate the marine habitat and coral reefs, which form the ocean’s, and in turn the land’s, life support system. A full one-fourth of the world’s mangrove cover has been wiped out during the past two decades.

Pakistan’s situation is even more dire than the global average. Tens of millions of tons of domestic waste, raw sewage, hospital discards, industrial effluents and agricultural nutrients are literally being generated in the country every day, all of which, in the absence of any safe disposal arrangements, finds its way to the rivers, creeks and canals, where they not only pollute the country’s limited sources of drinking water, but also bring innumerable diseases in its wake. The unchecked pollution of Sindh’s 1200 odd freshwater lakes is destroying the traditional livelihoods and way of life of the province’s fishing communities.

The unprecedented level of pollution in the mega city of Karachi, likewise, has resulted in unimaginable amounts of waste products being unceremoniously dumped into the sea, as if it was some kind of a giant garbage bin. Karachi harbour too, over time, has deteriorated to an extent that not even a single National Environmental Quality standard is being met. The extraordinary levels of toxic elements like chromium, lead, chlorides and sulphates, coupled with the low conductivity experienced, forms a corrosive mix that, apart from decimating all manner of marine life, whittles away at the submerged port infrastructure and causes extensive damage to ships berthed inside the harbour.

The Indus Delta used to be historically interspersed with natural river courses, which, braided with smaller tributaries formed a natural drainage system, permitting agricultural, fishing and trading communities to thrive. Badly planned infrastructural developments, and severely curtailed water flows downstream, have devastated the traditional sources of livelihood, forcing people to relocate. Strident proponents of new dams in the country, who frequently cite the example of copious amounts of water being ‘wasted’ into the sea, may find it difficult to accept that freshwater scarcity in the delta in most months of the year has not only wiped out all the freshwater strains of mangroves, but also allowed the sea to intrude unhindered into the hinterland (more than 70 km in places) to the point where the breadbasket of Karachi, Malir, is under threat.

International regulations for environmental conservation are all in place. International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships 1973/78 prescribes strict anti-pollution standards for ships and all types of toxic cargo. Pollution of the sea from other sources is regulated by various regional treaties, most of which have been adopted under the UN Environmental Programme. The 2009 Hong Kong International Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships (not yet entered in force though) deals with all aspects of the recycling process, from the design, construction, operation and preparation of ships to the use of such facilities. Guidelines on fisheries conservation and management of the EEZ are contained in the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries adopted in 1995 by the UN Food & Agriculture Organisation. Principle 21 of the Stockholm Declaration of 1972 seeks to strike a balance between a state’s sovereignty and its responsibility to ensure that its activities and the activities of its citizens do not cause environmental harm to other states or to areas beyond national jurisdiction. A useful lesson to absorb here is that sovereignty and responsibility go hand in hand.

The Ballast Water Management Convention, which came into force in September 2017, requires ships to manage their ballast water effectively, which in turn will prevent the spread of invasive aquatic species that possess the potential to cause havoc to the local ecosystems. The International Maritime Organisation has also enacted rules that aim to cap sulphur emissions at 0.5% of fuel content by January 2020, compared to 3.5% at present. As a flag state, Pakistan thus needs to take an immediate decision on whether to invest in costly scrubbers for its ships or rely on expensive low sulphur gas fuel from foreign refineries.

So though comprehensive international agreements are all there, the problem confronting Pakistan is whether it has the will and the wherewithal to enforce them in our waters and in our own ships, for which the necessary domestic legislation is a prerequisite. And domestic legislation is certainly not our forte.

Another concept that has escaped our notice is that of Integrated Coastal Zone Management. It was the Rio Earth Summit of 1992 that inter alia formalised the ICZM concept by according a special status of its own to the coastal arena. At its heart is a recognition that both terrestrial and oceanic processes are not only at work in the coastal region, but their activities and impacts are intricately interlinked. ICZM thus not only furnishes a viable land-sea interface, but also serves as a built-in mechanism for conflict resolution and as an instrument for environmental conservation. Its policy, planning and management have accordingly to be suitably tailored. The development of Coastal and Marine Spatial Plans (CMSP) is an important step to guide decision making for the blue economy. Their purpose is not only to achieve integration between land and water segments alone, but also between the various levers of government and local stakeholders, and to encompass all spheres of activity.

The best example of a blue economy, if indeed we are looking for one, stems from the European Union. 90% of the world’s sea based wind turbines are currently in Europe. Netherlands and Denmark are deriving clean energy from ocean waves. France happens to host the largest tidal wave power plant. The number of jobs in Europe’s ocean renewable energy sector are expected to double by 2030. Norway has emerged as the world leader in curbing harmful emissions, by not only generating all its electricity through hydropower, but also in going ahead with plans to electrify as many as two-thirds of the ferries that ply along its long and jagged coastline within the next 10 years. The world’s first fully autonomous commercial vessel with zero emissions, Norway’s Yara Birkeland, will be operational for coastal use by 2020, while Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) that trade internationally are expected to be introduced in a further five years.

Europe’s focus on the much-desired aspects of a blue economy is indeed laudable. After all, it is only through a ‘green’ approach that the sustainability factor is incorporated. Both living and non-living resources in the ocean are indeed in abundance. It has been estimated that by 2030, two out of every three fish on our dinner table will have been farmed, most of it by sea. Oil and gas are amongst the most abundant of non-living resources, with almost one-fourth of current global needs being met from offshore fields. Extreme care needs to be exercised during such deep-drilling operations to prevent oil spills like that of the Deepwater Horizon, which ravaged the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. With spills like that, one can bid the blue economy goodbye. Besides fossil fuels, as much as 500 billion tons of manganese nodules, containing manganese, iron, copper, nickel, phosphate and cobalt, are estimated to lie on the ocean floor. Gas hydrates (methane encased within water molecules) are believed to hold much more methane than presently exists in the atmosphere and up to twice the amount of energy of all fossil carbon-based fuels combined. The downside again is that methane not only adds to the greenhouse effect, but the gas is highly unstable at depths shallower than 500 metres.

The UN Convention on Law of the Sea obliges all coastal states to avoid environmental degradation; this is of paramount importance, particularly when exploration and mining work is being carried out in individual Exclusive Economic Zones. The minerals on the ocean floor beneath the High Seas have been deemed to be the ‘common heritage of mankind’, with its exploitation being administered by the International Seabed Authority. Though many licenses have been applied for and issued, actual mining has not yet been carried out.

In Pakistan, surprisingly, all major maritime initiatives, be it the setting up of the National Maritime Affairs Coordination Committee (NMACC) for maritime policy coordination, setting up of the Maritime Security Agency for policing our Exclusive Economic Zone, constituting the Marine Pollution Control Board, preparation of a National Marine Disaster Contingency plan or setting up of a Joint Maritime Information coordination Centre, carry a prominent naval stamp. This may seem perplexing to many, and perhaps rightly so, because the Navy’s role is understood to be only limited to the protection of the country’s maritime interests. The simple answer to this is that all maritime activities in Pakistan are peculiarly compartmentalised and no other Ministry or Agency is able or willing to take on the much-needed national level policy and coordination responsibilities that are beyond individual mandates. The newly-named Ministry of Maritime Affairs can be a suitable candidate for playing a lead role provided it is endowed with the desired professional capacity. A name change alone is hardly the right substitute for professional competence.

To conclude, concept of a blue economy will remain alien to a country that remains blissfully unaware of its national and international obligations, or one that has a dysfunctional Environmental Control Authority, or one that considers an investment in wastewater treatment plants too much of a burden, or one that considers the river flows that help invigorate the mangroves, biodiversity, ecosystems, flora and fauna of the Indus Delta as ‘wasted’.

The ocean is indeed an endless source of energy, and living and non-living resources, if only we learn to tap it with care. The ocean is in addition a regulator of climate change and a recycler of the world’s harmful emissions, if only we learn not to stretch it beyond limits. ‘The oceans deserve our respect and care’, says oceanographer Sylvia Earle, ‘ but you have to know something before you can care about it’. And therein lies our dilemma!


Note: This article was published in the February 2019 issue of the Global Village Space magazine.

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