Main page content

Sustainable Marine Resource Governance in the Indian Ocean Region

The Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is one of the most geopolitically, geophysically and geoeconomically (the “three geos”) influential, as well as volatile, regions in the world. Resource security is an issue that elicits the way in which the “three geos” interact – also highlighting the need for exploring diplomatic and governance initiatives to promote cooperation and stability in the region.

The Geopolitical Race for Critical Resources in the IOR

With more countries joining the race for prospecting and harnessing the marine and coastal resources of the IOR – mainly rare earth elements (REEs) – the stakes have risen on many fronts. On the one hand, India is clearly wary of China’s growing presence and influence in the region. It has been alleged that China’s scientific and technological forays into the IOR are aimed at staking a claim to the ocean in the long run. On the other hand, like the U.S., the E.U., Japan, Australia and others, India would want to challenge China’s monopoly over REEs that are used in critical manufacturing sectors such as defence and electronics. China has exploited its dominance over the supply of REEs by restricting their exports through export tariffs and quotas; and by blocking exports to countries, as in the case of Japan (dispute over a Chinese fishing trawler captain’s detention by Japan).

In order to reduce its heavy dependence on China’s REE exports (which have been as high as 80 percent), Japan is not only investing heavily in deep-sea prospecting but also cooperating with countries such as  India – with the signing of the commercial contract between Indian Rare Earths Limited (IREL) and Toyota Tsusho Corporation (TTC) for the exploration and production of REEs. While India is hoping to bolster its deep-sea mining and production technology through ‘rare earth diplomacy’ with Japan, it has also acquired a deep-sea exploration ship ‘Samudra Ratnakar’ (“equipped with sophisticated deep-sea survey instruments like doppler profilers, multi-beam sonars, acoustic positioning systems, marine magnetometers and a marine data management system”) from South Korea.

The Other Major Drivers of the Blue Economy

The geoeconomic significance of the Indian Ocean stems from the opportunities it presents in the form of not only REEs, but also hydrocarbons, food and livelihood, and energy (wind, tidal, wave, thermal and biomass). The fact that IOR lies at the centre of the global petroleum market (in all the three sectors – upstream [such as Persian Gulf], midstream [such as the proposed Iran-Oman-India deep-sea gas pipeline] and downstream [the case of Singapore as a petroleum processing, storage and loading/unloading hub]) does not need further explanation. Indeed, what has boosted the prospects of the region are newer discoveries such as in the Western IOR – gas in Mozambique and Tanzania; oil deposits in Madagascar and Seychelles – that are now available for exploration.

Similarly, the region’s thriving fishing industry contributes heavily to its countries’ economies – employing millions directly (fishing and fish farming) indirectly (boat construction, fish processing etc), supplementing food security (by ensuring protein diet) and contributing about 15 percent of the world’s fish catch. With greater emphasis on advocacy of renewable energy, especially in regions with underdeveloped electricity grids, ocean energy is increasingly being recognised as a feasible option in the IOR – as seen in South Africa, the Persian Gulf, Southeast Asia, Australia and other sub-regions. India does not wish to be left behind as well, and the country has now become a member of the International Energy Agency – Ocean Energy Systems. All these facts and figures point towards the existence of a flourishing blue economy in the IOR.

Calling for Sustainable Marine Resource Governance in the IOR  

What is of utmost priority at this juncture is the setting up of a governance mechanism for the sustainable management of the resources of the IOR. The rate at which the region’s natural resources are being exploited is perilous on many counts. Pollution in the IOR has already come under the scanner, with plastic debris and chemical runoff pinpointed as the cause for hypoxia as well as fierce cyclones in the Northern IOR. Reports have shown that deep-sea mining activities could harm ecosystems by causing marine pollution, destroying habitat and biodiversity. Conservationists claim that due to the lack of understanding of deep-sea environment that is considered highly sensitive, the risks of “seabed habitat degradation over vast ocean areas, species extinctions, reduced habitat complexity, slow and uncertain recovery, suspended sediment plumes, toxic plumes from surface ore dewatering, pelagic ecosystem impacts, undersea noise, ore and oil spills in transport, and more” are high.

The ISA has, however, labelled seabed mining as an environmentally better process in comparison to terrestrial mining, while acknowledging the potential risks mentioned above; which is why it lays thrust on exploration and exploitation with “minimal environmental footprint.” Over-exploitation of resources is another issue that the IOR countries have to address. Overfishing has emerged as an immediate concern but deep-sea mining poses a much bigger challenge in the long-term. Under the auspices of the ISA, seabed and subsoil beyond national jurisdiction are treated as the ‘Global Commons’ and therefore, can be used only “for the benefit of all humankind.”

Conservation is mostly overlooked by most agreements and institutions governing sectoral issues concerning the oceans – shipping (International Maritime Organisation, IMO), fishing (the global network of regional fisheries management organisations, RFMOs) and mining (ISA). The principal law governing the oceans – United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) – also does not adequately address conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity. An Implementing Agreement in this direction has not yet seen the light of day. At the same time, those arrangements that are aimed at conservation such as the Convention on Biological Diversity have limited regulatory authority and rely chiefly on voluntary measures. Although a sectoral approach cannot be done away with, there needs to be better coordination and cooperation among various institutions and agencies.

There is an urgent requirement for designing appropriate governance frameworks that define allocation, access and benefit-sharing norms as well as designate Ecologically or Biologically Significant Marine Areas (EBSAs) in the IOR. Areas under national jurisdiction, including Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) require governance mechanisms not only at the international and national levels, but also at sub-regional and regional levels, as environmental challenges do not recognise politically-assigned maritime boundaries. The Regional Seas Conventions and Action Plans is a step in the right direction, as it “aims to address the accelerating degradation of the world’s oceans and coastal areas through the sustainable management and use of the marine and coastal environment, by engaging neighbouring countries in comprehensive and specific actions to protect their shared marine environment.”

The only organisation that covers the entire IOR – Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) – and other regional organisations in the region such as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), East African Community (EAC), and Indian Ocean Commission have a large role to play in developing environmental governance mechanisms.

What is also important is that climate change, which is already said to be having an adverse impact on resource and livelihood security in the IOR, should be integrated into the marine resource governance mechanisms. Ocean acidification caused by rising sea surface temperatures, rising sea levels, storm surges, stronger tropical cyclones are only some of the climate-related dangers that the region faces. There is a need to build technical, financial and institutional capacities among the countries of the region for mitigation and adaptation. And this would be possible only through climate diplomacy, involving all the major regional players as well as external players (in the form of their assistance) as the IOR countries are at varying levels of development, with an overwhelming majority falling into the categories of developing and least developed countries (LDCs).

India, with its desire to expand its influence in the Indo-Pacific region, particularly the IOR, could be at the forefront of sustainable marine resource governance by initiating programmes through some of these regional organisations, of which it is a member. In an attempt to transform India’s outlook towards the IOR, Prime Minister Modi coined the term, “SAGAR” (literally translates into ocean) that stands for “Security and Growth for All in the Region.” As some experts suggest, it should ideally stand for “Sustainability and Growth for All in the Region.” Whether it is security or sustainability, environmental security, governance and diplomacy should feature among its pillars.

[This article is written as a part of the adelphi-MARG project Climate Diplomacy, supported by the German Federal Foreign Office.]

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.

Dhanasree Jayaram is Project Associate, Manipal Advanced Research Group (MARG), Manipal University, Karnataka, India