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The Great Barrier Reef today, the Sundarbans next?

The effort to, and resistance against, putting the Great Barrier Reef in an endangered sites list, between the UNESCO and the Australian government, is a warning sign for the world. Many more such collisions are coming in other parts of the world.

The Great Barrier Reef faces an uncertain future due to climate change.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has clashed with the Australian government after the UN body suggested that the Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest coral reef system located off the coast of Queensland in Australia should be put on a list on natural heritage sites that are endangered.

The 2,300-kilometre-long Great Barrier Reef is made up of 2,900 individual reefs and 900 islands. It is one of the world’s great oceanic treasures and has already faced three damaging instances of mass bleaching incidents from ocean waters heating due to climate change till 2015 (the last time such an analysis was done).

Australia has said that the Reef was being singled out and politics, rather than environmentalism alone, decided such a suggestion by UNESCO. The Australian government which has had significant economic and political strife with China in the recent past has suggested that the Asian giant which chairs the World Heritage Committee at the moment might have had a role in the recommendation. The recommendation will be considered at a July 16 meeting (in Fuzhou, China) of UNESCO.

Apart from the Great Barrier Reef, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the official advisor on nature to UNESCO listed three other natural heritage sites which it recommended be put in the List of World Heritage in Danger - the W-Arly-Pendjari Complex in Benin, Burkina Faso and Niger, the Natural and Cultural Heritage of the Ohrid region in Albania and North Macedonia, and the Volcanoes of Kamchatka in Russia. It also recommended the removal of the Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania from the World Heritage List, “due to irreversible damage following construction of the Julius Nyerere Hydropower Project”.

It is worth noting what these sites are (apart from the Reef). W-Arly-Pendjari Complex spread across the countries of Benin, Burkina Faso and Niger includes the largest and most important continuum of terrestrial, semi-aquatic and aquatic ecosystems in the West African savannah belt. The property is a refuge for wildlife species that have disappeared elsewhere in West Africa or are highly threatened. It is home to the largest population of elephants in West Africa and most of the large mammals typical of the region, such as the African Manatee, cheetah, lion and leopard. It also harbours the only viable population of lions in the region”.

The significance of the Ohrid region is highlighted because it is a “superlative natural phenomenon, Lake Ohrid provides a refuge for numerous endemic species of freshwater fauna and flora dating from the Tertiary period. Situated on the shores of the lake, the town of Ohrid is one of the oldest human settlements in Europe”.

The volcanoes of Kamchatka are “one of the most outstanding volcanic regions in the world, with a high density of active volcanoes, a variety of types, and a wide range of related features. The six sites included in the serial designation group together the majority of volcanic features of the Kamchatka peninsula. The interplay of active volcanoes and glaciers forms a dynamic landscape of great beauty. The sites contain great species diversity, including the world's largest known variety of salmonoid fish and exceptional concentrations of sea otter, brown bear and Stellar's sea eagle”.

And the Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania has “large numbers of elephants, black rhinoceroses, cheetahs, giraffes, hippopotamuses and crocodiles live in this immense sanctuary, which measures 50,000 km2 and is relatively undisturbed by human impact. The park has a variety of vegetation zones, ranging from dense thickets to open wooded grasslands”. The Julius Nyerere Hydropower Project is a hydroelectric dam – fourth biggest in Africa and ninth largest in the world – across the Rufiji river which started in 2019 and is expected to be completed in 2022.

Politics aside, this is the beginning of friction between world governments and bodies like UNESCO who have the unenviable job of pointing out destruction to our common natural heritage due to the climate change. As the world warms and exploits its natural resources with more ferocity to cater to population and energy pressures, such strife is inevitable.

In July, the UNESCO will consider a list of 193 sites reviewing their status and deliberating where to put them in the list of ‘in danger’ sites. These sites are located across the world, from China and Italy to Poland and Zimbabwe, from Nepal to Venezuela, Egypt to Canada. They represent some of the most precious heritage common to all mankind.

But most of these are in significant danger. For instance, take the Sundarbans. Mostly in Bangladesh and some parts in the Indian state of West Bengal, the “Sundarbans mangrove forest, one of the largest such forests in the world (140,000 ha), lies on the delta of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers on the Bay of Bengal. It is adjacent to the border of India’s Sundarbans World Heritage site inscribed in 1987. The site is intersected by a complex network of tidal waterways, mudflats and small islands of salt-tolerant mangrove forests, and presents an excellent example of ongoing ecological processes. The area is known for its wide range of fauna, including 260 bird species, the Bengal tiger and other threatened species such as the estuarine crocodile and the Indian python”.

The UNESCO in its draft report “with the utmost concern the ongoing expansion and dredging operations near Mongla Port [the second busiest sea port of Bangladesh], which would require additional maintenance dredging and are likely to increase traffic on the Pashur River, and also urges the State Party to ensure that no further decision is made for any new large-scale industrial and/or infrastructural development, which may influence the OUV [Outstanding Universal Value] of the property, including further development of Mongla Port [second busiest sea port of Bangladesh] or any other development that might further increase traffic on the Pashur River”.

UNESCO has also asked for a review report by February 1, 2022, on how its recommendations are being implemented and a decision on whether to declare the Sundarbans as part of the ‘in danger’ list would be decided following a review of that implementation report in 2022.

Of all the lists in the world, this today is perhaps the most important. Note the fissures – the stress on the Sundarbans, for instance, comes from expansion of infrastructure in Bangladesh which is being lauded for its swift growth and potential to become a sort of South Asian tiger economy of the future. But for that Bangladesh is heavily dependent on exports, and interrelated infrastructure. Which in turn affects the Sundarbans.

It is a classic case of the kind of friction that is likely to grow exponentially in the near future as the world scrambles to control climate change and propel growth in a post-pandemic era.


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