South Asia and its COVID-related maritime crisis in the Indian Ocean Region (World Maritime Day September 24)

The scourge of the COVID pandemic has radically altered the nature of the challenge cum dangers lurking in the maritime sector for South Asia as related to the Indian Ocean and the surrounding seas, writes C Uday Bhaskar for South Asia Monitor

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The maritime domain is vital for South Asian prosperity and human security in the long term and it is encouraging to note that this sector is beginning to receive the  policy attention it deserves.

The Indian focus on SAGAR (security and growth for all in the region) as outlined by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2015 is a case in point. Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have also made commendable progress by way of their investment in the Blue Economy and along with the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) states littoral to the Indian Ocean, there is considerable scope for mutually beneficial long term policy initiatives.

COVID impact

Thus World Maritime Day on September 24 is an opportune moment to review both the challenges and opportunities to the region.  The scourge of the COVID pandemic has radically altered the nature of the challenge cum dangers lurking in the maritime sector for South Asia as related to the Indian Ocean and the surrounding seas.

While many studies and reports testify to the potential that the Blue Economy (any form of legitimate revenue generation through the seas and oceans) holds for the Indian Ocean region (IOR), this is yet to be harnessed in an optimum manner.

Blue Economy

It is estimated that about four percent of India’s GDP is Blue Economy related and with sustained investment and harmonisation of centre-state as also sub-regional policies, this could be increased progressively with attendant employment generation.

In comparison, China is estimated to have garnered up to the US $ 1.2 trillion (2017) through  the Blue Economy which is about nine percent of GDP and hopes to increase  this to 15 percent by 2035. It may be added that the bounty from the waters of the Indian Ocean has contributed in no small measure to the Chinese GDP.

This has more to do with the fact that many of the IOR nations do not have the technology and fishing infrastructure to maximize their oceanic catch – and hence the adage that fish in the Indian Ocean die of old age!

Grim picture

But all the positive estimates are predicated on the health of the global oceans and a macro review indicates that the picture is grim. The world’s seas and oceans have been steadily polluted by human mismanagement and one indicator is the plastic menace. The world’s maritime domain has become the dumping area for all kinds of pollutants and waste generated on land and non-degradable plastic is the most complex threat. Huge amounts of plastic waste have been indiscriminately tossed into the oceans for decades and these pieces can last from 400 to 1000 years.

Consequently with an addition of about eight million tons of global plastic waste to the oceans annually (2019 figure), it is estimated that left unchecked, by 2050 there would be more plastic by weight in the global oceans and seas than the total weight of fish. Vast islands of plastic are already sloshing in the oceanic domain and both birds and marine life have been disastrously impacted. An illustration of the scale of the plastic peril is symbolized by the presence of one lone plastic bag in the world’s deepest oceanic spot - the Marianna Trench in the Pacific at a depth of about 11 km. And while it is dismaying, fine bits of plastic have already entered the human food chain through fish that have ingested this fine, decomposed plastic waste.

COVID-19 has altered the scale of the plastic peril in an alarming but little-noticed manner – especially in India that is now obsessed with scandals related to drugs and celluloid celebrities. Basically the COVID pandemic has led to a huge proliferation in the manufacture of protective equipment with significant plastic content – be it masks, gloves or clothing. Once used, these items are being discarded in a less than safe and appropriate manner.

Some thumbnail figures are revealing. It is estimated that at the height of the COVID spread the world was using 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves per month and the scale differed from country to country. Disposal of the resultant medical waste (used gloves/masks et al)   is the responsibility of local municipal and civic authorities and here the problem faced by Mumbai is illustrative of the scale of the challenge and can be extrapolated to other cities.

To its credit, the civic administration of Mumbai has kept fairly detailed records of COVID related medical waste collection and disposal and this will be valuable in understanding the correlation to the maritime domain.

In March this year when the COVID was identified as a major public health challenge, Mumbai generated 286 kg of waste per day. In April, this rose to 3304 kg daily and by July this figure surged to 12,065 kg per day. The existing infrastructure for the safe disposal of such contaminated waste is now overwhelmed and it has been reported that improper disposal is taking place – and at some point, much of this will make its way to the Arabian Sea.

Impact on IOR

Experts fear that across the IOR, poor waste disposal infrastructure will compound the plastic peril and the COVID pandemic will only aggravate the problem. Extrapolating from the Mumbai experience, it merits note that six of the world’s most populous cities are littoral to the Indian Ocean. Mumbai apart, they include Dhaka, Karachi, Kolkata, Chennai, and Jakarta. The quantum of COVID-related plastic waste being generated by these cities would be a useful indicator of what could possibly end up in the oceans and seas over the next year.

There is an urgent need to take stock of the health of the Indian Ocean in a holistic manner and the SACEP umbrella could be innovatively energized. Founded in 1982, the South Asia Cooperative Environment Program (SACEP), which is focussed on oil spills and related pollution could consider reviewing the scale of the COVID plastic-linked threat to the Indian Ocean and the options to mitigate the long term dangers that are inherent to indiscriminate dumping of waste in the oceans.

Human security in South Asia is inexorably linked to the maritime domain and nurturing the health of the oceans is a collective responsibility. World Maritime Day warrants more than token acknowledgment.

(The writer, a retired Indian Navy commodore, is Director, Society for Policy Studies (SPS). The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at cudaybhaskar@spsindia.in)