Pollution from land choking Asian seas

The UN has warned that pollution from Asia's cities, farms and industry is threatening the economically-vital coastal areas and called on governments to wake up and address the issue.

Land-based activities such as the wholesale discharge of untreated sewage and rampant deforestation are leaving the region’s marine environment increasingly stressed, killing off ecologically important corals and mangroves and driving away more mobile sea life.

Speaking on Monday at a Beijing conference looking at how marine pollution could be combatted, UN Environment Programme (UNEP) official Veerle Vandeweerd said: “The Asian region crystallizes the challenges and opportunities facing the global community trying to balance economic development and poverty eradication with social and environmental factors.”

While more than 60 countries have developed national action programmes to reduce marine pollution from agricultural run-off and the release of untreated water from sewage systems and industrial sites, good intentions were being overtaken by problems on the ground.

“These successes are being overwhelmed by booming populations, rapid urbanization and industrialization and a range of growing pressures in the coastal zones,”said Ms Vanderweerd.

“Governments need to hurry up and step up action to reduce pollution from land-based sources, otherwise rapid development will come at a high price as a result of losses and damage to economically important habitats, ecosystems and marine resources from coastlines and coral reefs to mangroves and fisheries.”

According to UNEP, the amount of sewage being treated before release varies widely in the region from roughly 60% in Japan to 15% in Mumbai, India, and just 6% in Karachi, Pakistan.

Discharges from many big industrial plants situated along the coast are also a threat and are a common feature in much of South Asia.

Two thirds of the world’s total sediment washed down rivers and into the seas occurs in South and East Asia, due in part to rapid, unregulated deforestation which is particularly acute in Southeast Asia and studies in the Philippines and Indonesia estimate damage to coral reefs from logging-induced sedimentation greatly exceeds the economic benefits of logging.

The UNEP administered Global Environment Facility – a war chest to fight urgent environmental problems paid into by most developed countries, many of the emerging economies and some states in the developing world – has invested US$1.2 billion to staunch land-based marine pollution.

This money will be split roughly equally between projects in Asia, the Mediterranean and the Black Sea and Danube.

A substantial guide advising governments on what action can be taken to protect the marine environment from land-based pollution has also been published by UNEP.

Sam Bond

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