“Ocean is an integral part of the earth’s life support system”

“Ocean is an integral part of the earth’s life support system”

Dr. Mitrasen Bhikajee
Dr. Mitrasen Bhikajee
Director and Deputy Executive Secretary
Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission

What are the mandate and activi- ties of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission?
The Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) is a commission of UNESCO. At the same time, it also has a certain level of programme autonomy. It is mandated by the UN to address various aspects of ocean science, including capacity building and technology transfer. It is a commission of government representatives from coastal states, although membership is not restricted to such states. These representatives constitute the Assembly which is the governing body and decides on the activities of the commission which are executed by the secretariat. IOC is the only UN Commission dedicated exclusively to oceans and where decisions are taken for the entire ocean community.

IOC is leading a global effort to establish tsunami warning sys- tems. Can you tell us more?
The tsunami warning system is one of our flagship programmes. After the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, there was a lot of concern not only from the affected countries but also from other countries which wanted to assist. There was an urgent need for an intergovernmental organisation to coordinate various activities linked to the tsunami and they looked up to the IOC for it. The IOC, therefore, took up the responsibility and the mandate to coordinate all the activities related to the Indian Ocean tsunami warnings. The outcome was that the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System, coordinated by the IOC, became officially operational in October 2011 with alerts being sent from three locations – Australia, Indonesia and India.

Is there any information exchange mechanism between these three countries?
There is an information exchange mechanism but it is not only between the three countries; it is at a global level. It is also one of the mandates of IOC to promote data exchange. Countries have their own territorial waters and exclusive economic zones and they collect their own oceanographic data like sea level, ocean currents, sea surface temperature etc. But this information remains within the country unless there is a bilateral agreement with another country on information sharing, and even then the exchange remains limited. One of the mandates of IOC, therefore, is to bring together all the countries to share oceanographic data instead of each one having to sign a bilateral agreement. Our International Oceanographic Data Exchange (IODprogramme, based in Oostende in Belgium, ensures that countries contribute information and data freely, both in real time and in delayed mode so that they become available, through our websites, to scientists around the world.

How is IOC using geospatial tech- nology for ocean observation?
IOC runs a programme called the Global Ocean Observing System which is an intensive user of geospatial technology. Participating countries use data captured by sensors on board satellites to obtain information of sea surface temperature, ocean colour and altimetry.

One of the major effects of cli- mate change is on oceans and marine ecosystems. How is cli- mate change affecting the oceans and how is the change in oceans affecting climate?
Oceans make up two-thirds of the planet and despite the fact that oceans have different names, they all are connected. Whatever happens in one part of the world affects the rest of the world also. The most classic example is the melting of the polar caps. We know that this melting will result in increase in the sea level which will affect all the coastal states but will especially endanger small islands and developing states.

The other factor affecting the ocean is the activities causing climate change, for example, the increasing level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The worst part of this problem is that its effects are not visible at present. The carbon dioxide in the atmosphere should have been a lot higher but it is not so because the ocean is absorbing it and a lot of carbon dioxide is getting dissolved in the ocean. As a result, the ocean is becoming more acidic. Marine organisms with calcium carbonate- based skeletons, like coral and oysters, are becoming more fragile.

Are there any mechanisms through which IOC is making its members aware of these issues?
Yes. We have programmes running on these issues. We are also trying to raise these issues at a much higher level. During the last Rio+10 Conference, the ocean was not given much importance. During the recent Rio+20 Conference however, IOC rallied a number of countries to sensitise them on the issue.

How far has IOC been successful in making the members actually take some action?
IOC participated in a number of events at Rio+20. IOC prepared a blueprint on the ocean in collaboration with Food and Agriculture Organization, International Maritime Organization and the United Nations Development Programme wherein we have put forth what we believe the ocean community should propose. This has been distributed to all our member states and at Rio+20 also. This initiative had quite an impact because in the final outcome document of Rio +20, titled “The Future We Want”, nineteen paragraphs concerning the ocean and several of the proposals from the blueprint were included.

One way of sensitising member states is at the policy level. Another is by developing capaci- ties. Are there any initiatives by IOC in this direction, like training?
Yes, this is one of our major programmes. Capacity building is directly my responsibility at IOC. Each of our programmes, whether on tsunami or ocean science, have inbuilt capacity building programmes. IOC also runs courses on data management from its office in Oostende in Belgium. Right now, we are trying to get a larger audience for our live online courses. In addition, we run such activities from our sub-commissions in Colombia, Thailand and Kenya. One of UNESCO”s priorities is Africa, so the office in Kenya is going to be extremely important for us.

Short term workshops work well but the problem is that when the people who follow these workshops retire or change jobs, the knowledge is lost. So we are thinking more in terms of training for formal qualifications so that the qualified people can further increase capacity in their country. This creates a self perpetuating system in each country. Once these people are trained, there will be a lesser need for foreign experts.

The Tsunami warning system of IOC

Is IOC providing any kind of fund- ing to sustain such systems?
We have several small funding programmes. One such programme is Participation Programme where the member nations have a free hand in deciding what they want to do irrespective of the mandate of IOC. They submit a project which is then funded by us and the countries manage the project on their own along with the local population. If required, we send in experts to supervise the project.

We have another initiative called UNITWIN. We invite universities to develop UNESCO chairs. UNESCO provides a limited amount of funds, depending on needs to the chair for the activities that he or she would like to organise, including workshops, meetings and so on.

In addition, since December 2011, UNESCO has been accredited by the Climate Change Adaptation Fund as the multi-lateral implementing entity. As a result, funds can be made available for running regional programmes on climate change adaptation in certain regions.

In your view, what is the foremost challenge for climate change in terms of oceans? What can be done in terms of sensitisation?
There are two main concerns. One is the rise in sea level. This can cause major disruption and coastal infrastructure engineering problems especially in small countries with significant part of their coastal lands close to sea level. The sea level problem can also lead to what can be called “climate change refugees” where people may have to leave their homeland in case it is inundated over time. As a consequence of this, languages and cultures may also disappear. Sceptics might say that the rise in sea level is cyclic and has always been like that. I believe that even if it has been cyclic, there is more at stake now than at any other time, given the infrastructure development on the coasts. Ports, infrastructure, factories and coastal towns – all are at stake. The other issue is acidification, though we need more conclusive studies on this issue.

The importance of the oceans needs to be highlighted from the school level in all countries, so that people from very young age get accustomed to the fact that they have to take care of the oceans. The difference between land and sea is that one can see resources and damages on land whereas in oceans one can only see the surface and not what is at the bottom. Management therefore becomes much more difficult. So there is a need for more sensitisation and education on the ocean so that people take better care of it. The ocean is an integral and essential part of the earth”s life support system and should be treated as such.