by Madhushi Sandamini
Published on The Morning on 28th January 2024
Natural resources are treasures in which the countries with natural prosperity flourish since they generate economic revenue for the national economy in a country through its sustainable utilisation. Of this natural wealth, sea and ocean regions that provide a range of economic opportunities have acquired a pivotal position on the economic rostrum. However, island, peninsular, and littoral nations that have extensive or limited maritime territories and strategic blue water spots have been granted outstanding possibilities for economic development. With the first emergence at the United Nations (UN) Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20/Rio 2012/Earth Summit 2012) held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in June, 2012, which aimed to advance the “green economy” concept, the notion of a blue economy or ocean economy was touted as an alternative economic model to boost deprived economic systems as well as sustain prosperous economics through the sustainable use of marine resources. The UN defines the blue economy as a variety of socially and environmentally responsible commercial ventures centred around seas, oceans, and coastal regions and it should promote economic growth, social inclusion, and the preservation or improvement of livelihoods while at the same time ensuring the environmental sustainability of the oceans and coastal areas. In this scenario, the pure ideology of the notion of a blue economy, in particular, encourages sustainable ocean activities, ocean health, animal conservation, and pollution reduction.
However, the majority of maritime nations in the globe that are utilising blue resources intend to accomplish their economic requirements and poverty eradication. As per the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) – 2023, the worth of the global ocean economy has been estimated at United States dollars ($) three to six trillion while fisheries and aquaculture provide $ 100 billion per year as well as approximately 260 million employment opportunities to the world economy. When it comes to the developing world, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimates that more than three billion people rely on the ocean for their livelihoods as well as the vast majority in developing countries and that in many of those, ocean-based industries such as tourism and fisheries are key sources of income, foreign exchange, as well as a number of employment opportunities. Despite the ability to make the blue economy the cornerstone of the national economy by tapping into the abundant blue wealth, the vitality of blue economic investments is still overlooked in some countries with abundant marine resources, such as Sri Lanka, while some countries with small sea areas have reached the pinnacle of economic development by the sustainable utilising of blue economic tactics.
Sri Lankan perspective on blue economy
Sri Lanka is an island nation with a coastline of 1,790 kilometres (km) including the shoreline of bays and inlets as well as 21,500 km squared (km2) of territorial seas covering 510,000 km2 of an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) bordered by the Indian Ocean while the Maritime Zone Law, No. 22 of 1976 has granted national authority to extend the country’s EEZ over the territorial sea and maritime zones of Sri Lanka. According to the UN Development Programme (UNDP), Sri Lanka’s maritime area consists of approximately historic waters which cover 24% of the total land area across 14 administrative districts and the coastal areas contain four commercial ports, important railway lines, and 22 fishery harbours, which contribute to 65% of industrial outputs, 80% of tourism infrastructure, and 80% of the fish production. The World Bank estimates that Sri Lanka’s coastal regions provide an array of livelihoods for approximately 33% of the country’s population, ranging from fishing to the tourism industry.
Taking into consideration Sri Lanka’s exploitation of the blue resources, the fishing sector brings in a significant amount of foreign exchange, contributing to 2.7% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), whilst the tourism sector, which includes coastline tourism, accounts for 8%. Although the country possesses an extensive variety of potentials for marine-based activities such as ocean-based renewable energy, aquaculture, mariculture, maritime transport, marine biotechnology, marine manufacturing, marine trades, marine constructions, shipping, port and maritime logistics, and so on, Sri Lanka’s standpoint on blue revenue is however heavily reliant on fisheries and tourism. Although fishing is regarded as the top level blue revenue generator in Sri Lanka, massive socio-economic deprivation within the fisheries community has raised concerns about the industry’s viability. Despite the fact that Sri Lanka has aligned with a number of international initiatives, including the 2022 UN Biodiversity Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (COP15), the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), the UNDP, and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), it seems that the country’s sustainable blue economic investments are largely absent from the global disclosure on blue economic development in considering Sri Lanka’s ocean economic contribution to the national economy in comparison to other maritime countries such as Bangladesh which has a relatively small maritime zone rather than Sri Lanka. On the other hand, while Sri Lanka is exerting effort toward achieving the 2023 agenda, which prioritises “Life below water” as the 14th Sustainable Development Goal (SDG), the pragmatic approach used to pursue it has cast doubt on Sri Lanka’s capacity for sustainable blue economic development due to large-scale ocean pollution, poor investments, untapped resources, and other exploitations that keep on happening in Sri Lanka’s maritime zone. In this scenario, whether Sri Lanka has properly verified the value of its enormous maritime resources for economic growth remains an uncertainty.
A feasible model
Even though the notion of a blue economy is a relatively recent conception to Sri Lanka, history witnesses that the country prospered even during the monarchical period from massive amounts of ocean-based commerce, transportation, fishing, and other activities. However, nature’s rare blessing of being an island nation located in a strategic spot in the Indian Ocean and having a marine environment with extensive biodiversity has produced an ideal environment for Sri Lanka to blossom into the blue economic potential and opportunities for economic development. In terms of the geographic significance of the blue initiatives, Sri Lanka has a beneficial position in the centre of a busy shipping channel that no other part in South Asia can compete with. Thus, Sri Lanka also has a great deal of potential to develop into a naval centre for the shipping industry. On the other hand, Sri Lanka’s capability to establish a national economy centred around the blue economy is incontrovertible given that it is an island nation with a maritime area that is eight times larger than its total land area, and is positioned in the heart of an ocean that serves as a commercial hub and the centre for maritime trade routes in West and East Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and the Arab and Eastern parts of the globe. And also, Sri Lanka is endowed with natural resources such as wind, deep sea minerals, offshore oil, sea waves, gas reserves, seafood, and medicinal plants, etc., some of which remain untapped and those resources can be utilised for commercial purposes and power generation. Conversely, while Sri Lanka is an indeed attractive tourist destination, adopting far-reaching approaches to boost coastal tourism by leveraging Sri Lanka’s enormous marine biodiversity has a potential to make it even a top foreign exchange turbine in the country. However, simply put, as the ocean is a generator of economic opportunities, it is hard to put the intrinsic value of Sri Lanka’s marine resources into words if there is an explicit vision and a deliberate as well as methodical agenda with technological adaptation to verify and capitalise on the blue potential.
During its worst economic turmoil, the wake-up call has sounded to Sri Lanka to rethink a number of marine-based activities and energise novel blue methods utilising the marine resource. In that endeavour, there is an extreme necessity to make strategies based upon blue resources in an assortment of ways to achieve fiscal intentions, depending on their capabilities. While the country collaborates with a number of international organisations and agencies pertaining to the blue economy, in this scenario, institutes such as the Ministry of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Development, the Department of Coast Conservation and Coastal Resource Management, the Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA), the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA), the National Aquaculture Development Centre (NAQDA), the Sri Lanka Ports Authority, and so forth have all been established as national initiatives with an ocean economy aimed at protecting and overseeing Sri Lanka’s blue resources. Despite numerous endeavours, the problem is that Sri Lanka’s blue economic growth is still in a concealed layer. Accordingly, the Government should take the necessary steps to establish a Government focal point to oversee and manage Sri Lanka’s blue resources through maritime spatial planning, which emphasises the sustainable management of marine areas as an oceanic tool while implementing innovative proposals of experts and leveraging technology to grow the country’s blue economy. Furthermore, ocean reserves are essential because they may disturb unexplored marine riches before they are used sustainably. The fisheries sector, which is an essential component of the blue economy, should be expanded by minimising fishing-related abnormalities such as illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, post-harvest losses, and bottom trawling, etc. while providing formal mechanisms for the livelihood of Sri Lankan fishermen. On the other hand, it is imperative to make the optimal use of marine power farms and coastal tourism by applying sustainable practices and technologies. However, whatever has to be done, as a developing nation on the periphery of the world economy lacking in technological advancement, encouraging exploitative foreign investments that destroy the nation’s blue wealth has become a serious concern that needs to be addressed first. Accordingly, as an island nation with the 25th largest coastal area in the world, Sri Lanka must instead focus on its enormous blue potential, which could be employed to stimulate an economic revival in the country through a sustainable approach.
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* Ms. Madhushi Sandamini is a Research Assistant at the Institute of National Security Studies (INSS), the premier think tank on National Security established under the Ministry of Defence. The opinion expressed is her own and not necessarily reflective of the institute or the Ministry of Defence.