Following the resolution of maritime boundary disputes with neighbours Myanmar and India, the Government of Bangladesh expressed its intention in 2014 to use the sea resources as a key ingredient of future economic growth. However, a comprehensive plan is yet to be framed to realise the blue economy aspirations by incorporating economic uses of ocean space, identifying clear targets for sustainable growth, and setting a policy chart.
The topic hardly received any coverage in the Seventh Five Year Plan (2016-20), nor did the two international workshops organised by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the subject in 2014 and 2017 lead to any concrete output in the form of policies.
Against this backdrop, the World Bank has published a report titled 'Toward a Blue Economy: A Pathway for Bangladesh's Sustainable Growth' in May this year. The report offers a conceptual framework to guide policymakers. It also synthesizes the principles and summarises the information base required for setting realistic policies and targets for the journey towards a blue economy.
The Belgian academic Gunter Pauli was the first to coin the term 'The Blue Economy' through his book published in 2010. The concept was subsequently endorsed by the Rio+20 Conference in 2012. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit (2015), the blue economy is 'A sustainable ocean economy, where economic activity is in balance with the long-term capacity of ocean eco-systems to support its activity and remain resilient and healthy'. The 'ocean economy', on the other hand, implies 'the sum of the activities of the ocean-based industries, and the assets, goods and services of marine eco-systems' (OECD, 2016). A blue economy, therefore, aims at maintaining a balance between the economic opportunities and environmental limitations of using the ocean to generate wealth.
It is estimated that over 70 per cent of the planet earth is covered by oceans and 90 per cent of global trade is conducted over sea-routes. The verdicts of International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) regarding Bangladesh's disputes with Myanmar and India in 2012 and 2014 respectively granted Bangladesh the exclusive right to explore, exploit, preserve and manage the maritime resources over a massive area of 118,813 square kilometres of the Bay of Bengal (a part of the Indian Ocean).
There are huge resources beneath the blue waters of the Bay, which demands urgent policy interventions based on in-depth studies for harnessing and preserving these resources for the nation. At present, 95 per cent of the country's import and export trades are done through the sea-ports standing beside the Bay. Apart from the exclusive economic zone extending up to 200 nautical miles in the Bay, Bangladesh's sovereign rights in the seabed now stretch up to 354 nautical miles from the Chattogram seaport.
It may be mentioned that the Bay of Bengal is the largest among the 64 bays in the world and around 1.4 billion people live along its coastline in Bangladesh, India, Myanmar and Thailand. Besides, nearly 40 per cent of Bangladeshi population live in the coastal regions and about 30 million people (including household dependants) are engaged in sea-related activities like fisheries and transportation.
According to World Bank (2018) estimates, the ocean economy contributes US$ 6.2 billion in gross value addition or 3.0 per cent of GDP to the Bangladesh economy. This economy largely comprises of tourism and recreation (25 per cent), marine fisheries and aquaculture (22 per cent), transport (22 per cent), and offshore oil/gas extraction (19 per cent). Full and part-time employment in capture fisheries and aquaculture is estimated to be 1.3 million. On the other hand, an estimated 6.0 million are engaged in sea-salt production and ship-breaking activities.
Significantly, the new maritime boundaries probably hold one of the largest oil and gas reserves in the region. Besides, shipbuilding and ship-breaking are expected to grow moderately and the tourism sector at the rate of 9.0 per cent per year over the next decade. Ocean industries having potential include mariculture of seaweed and other macro algae as well as mussels, oysters, marine pearls, sea cucumbers and sea urchins. Renewable wind energy technologies as well as biotechnologies also have high prospects in the blue economy.
The World Bank however says that the changing status of ocean ecosystems may pose a significant threat to the future growth of ocean economy. The three drivers of change, viz. increasing fishing capacity, coastal development and pollution may have considerable impact on these ecosystems. The bank also predicts that four external drivers, viz. demographic change, global markets- cum-economy, science and technology, and climate change are likely to shape the future of Bangladesh's ocean economy.
The World Bank report suggests a coordinated planning process and a strategic long-term approach for transition to a blue economy. The range of opportunities and challenges are, however, daunting. Although traditional pursuits such as capture fisheries are likely to remain the focus, containing over-exploitation will remain a challenge. International experiences including those of neighbouring countries in other traditional sectors like transportation, tourism and shipbuilding may be utilised by providing required support and addressing over-exploitation of resource and infrastructure constraints.
Unfortunately, the needed policy planning process for developing a blue economy through setting measurable targets and monitoring progress has not yet been put in place in Bangladesh. The first step should therefore be to identify the ocean economy industries by Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics. This should also include a geographic measure of proximity to ocean and coast for those industries. The long-term aim would be to measure the economic value of natural capital. It will be possible to establish a consolidated 'blue economy account' by supplementing the data from an ocean account. The range of policy scenarios for the country's ocean economy also needs to be articulated, and clear targets should be set against them. All these would require active participation of a wide range of government bodies linked by common objectives. The launching of a 'Blue Economy Cell' at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs may have been a good start, but a stronger coordination mechanism linked to the Planning Commission will be required for deriving benefits from blue economy.
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