Malaysian PM pledges US$1 million to save corals

Date June 11, 2009

NO ONE predicted that Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak’s simple gesture at the World Oceans Conference in Manado, Indonesia, last month would create waves. By pledging US$1 million (RM3.5 million) to a fund to save corals in the Coral Triangle, the world’s centre of marine life, he not only crested the waves of public opinion, unknowingly he also inspired those struggling to save the ocean.

This coral triangle covers 3.4 million square miles of ocean space stretching from the sea in the Philippines to Malaysia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Timor Leste and Solomon Islands. It is home to 75% of all known coral species and more than 3,000 species of fish. Without these coral reefs, the World Wildlife Fund for Nature says “the fish will eventually die” and the entire ocean ecosystem that some 120 million people in the region depend on “could collapse”.

Malaysia’s contribution to the fund is the most fitting gift to the world that celebrates the “World Oceans Day” that falls on June 8 each year. The WOD was first proposed by Canada during the Earth Summit in Rio Janeiro in 1992.

The theme for this year’s WOD celebration of “one ocean, one climate, one future” is very apt. It may sound semantic but contrary to geopolitical considerations, there is only one large ocean (not oceans). The concept of one ocean is similar to Najib’s 1Malaysia in terms of policy approach.

While the former treats the ocean as an integrated global common where everyone has a stake; the latter emphasises total commitment to nation building that promises a future for the rakyat regardless of race, colour, creed and ideological inclination.

For much of history, humanity has taken the ocean for granted, polluting the sea and treating its resources as inexhaustible. By pushing the natural limits of the ocean’s carrying capacity for far too long, the ocean has reached a stressful level. Large areas are deficient in oxygen and nutrients as a result of, among other things, overfishing, pollution, habitat degradation and ocean acidification.

Ignoring the importance of the ocean can be a great mistake. Not only does the ocean cover more than 70% of the planet on which we depend for security, medicines, food, resources, trade, jobs, and recreation, it also serves as a vast highway for commerce, logistics and communication.

The ocean also helps to mitigate global warming. Its currents circulate the energy and water that regulate the earth’s climate. The ocean is the world’s biggest carbon sink absorbing carbon dioxide and at the same time it helps with photosynthesis whereby the phytoplankton releases oxygen into the water. Half of the world’s oxygen is produced via phytoplankton photosynthesis.

In short, the ocean plays a critical role for life on the planet. Human activities are choking the sea and destroying the life-support system critical to their very survival. The strangulation of the ocean has crippled its invaluable services (estimated at a few trillion dollars annually). Without the ocean, one scientist laments, “Life as we know it would cease to exist.”

Many Malaysians take the sea for granted. Few realise that the sea is larger than its land mass by 1.4 times and it contributes around 20% of Malaysia’s Gross National Product. We consume fish that comes mainly from the sea (10% of world protein comes from marine fish); Petronas extracts oil and gas from the continental shelf (more than 20% of global supply of oil and gas is in offshore areas). More than 90% of our export (by volume) goes by sea and, the sea bridges the peninsula with Sabah and Sarawak.

More than 60% of Malaysians live within 30 miles of the coast; and, almost all the major tourist centres in Malaysia are by the seaside.

The military keeps reminding us that the sea is our first line of defence. The border is so porous that we need to remain extra vigilant to stop, for example, illegal immigrants, illegal fishing and other forms of intruders.

The Strait of Malacca, our strategic lifeline, is not only polluted (mainly from land sources), it is also getting very congested (mainly foreign vessels that use the strait to bypass the straits of Lombok and Makassar). According to a 2008 study by the Japan Institute of International Transport, the number of vessels passing through the Strait of Malacca in 2020 will exceed 113,000 vessels a year; 93,000 in 2007. The sheer number and density will interfere directly with our legitimate activities in the strait like fishing and recreation.

The cost to keep the strait open and safe will rise to billions of ringgit. The probability of accidents in the shallow parts of the strait is high as traffic density increases. Besides not all vessels that ply the strait use the 150 mile Vessels Traffic Separation Scheme from One Fathom Bank, off Port Klang, to Tg Piai, off Kukup in Johor waters.

The sea poses another security problem. While likelihood of conflicts from overlapping claims in the Spratlys is low, the nation needs to be ready to deal with the unexpected threats from non-traditional sources like the 2005 Tsunami that destroyed Aceh, maritime terrorism and piracy.

Regional mechanisms to deal with maritime threats from non-traditional sources need to be upgraded as a matter of urgency.

Yet despite a strong maritime heritage, its strategic significance and substantial economic value, Malaysia does not have a comprehensive national ocean policy. The need for a single national maritime governance agency for Malaysia is both compelling and pressing. Such an institution can help coordinate more efficiently the diverse activities that affect the sea. It can also help optimise the productivity of ocean resources and services. It can also help reduce the costly intra-agency conflicts (13 government maritime agencies).

Reorganising the administration system of the sea can reinforce Najib’s 1Malaysia programme.

Restructuring the governance mechanisms will not, in my view, result in political fallouts as the sea is politically neutral.

Malaysia should emulate Canada, Australia, Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, US, Japan and South Korea, to name a few countries, which have special ocean laws and a single national maritime authority. The time is now for Malaysia to discard the label of a reluctant maritime nation. We should instead capitalise on our maritime attributes and heritage for a more assertive ocean governance policy.

Living in a global village, interconnected and held together by the sea, the poor state of health of the ocean must be a common concern. The challenge is how to make the sea more productive to reduce humanity’s vulnerability to climate change.

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