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      Volume 11 |Issue 35| September 07, 2012 |


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Protecting our Waters

Rear Admiral M Farid Habib Ndc, Psc

In school I learnt that Bangladesh was a riverine country with numerous rivers and canals crisscrossing. As a Cadet in the Navy I was taught, for the first time, that Bangladesh was also a maritime nation with vast potential sea areas under its jurisdiction, which is of tremendous importance to our economic survival. I am sure many in Bangladesh are unaware of Bangladesh's maritime significance and with such ignorance, they enter into various professions and gradually reach policy-making positions in our country. The sea remains absent in their thoughts, leaving them unable to visualise its importance.

If we look into our history, we will find that it is not only cultural influence or religion that has arrived through our naval passageway, but also intruders. The sub-continent lost its sovereignty to the British East India Company, merely a business company, not even a naval force. Learning lessons from history, Pandit Nehru concluded: “We cannot afford to be weak at sea.” Afterwards, India significantly developed itself as a 'maritime nation', whereas, Pakistan ignored naval build-up in its eastern flank. As a result, Pakistan's defeat in 1971 was quick, solely due to the disruption of its sea lines of communication (SLOC) and sea ports. India's amphibious assault and strategic air strike from the sea in 1971, compels us to re-evaluate our perception of threats more objectively. Historically, we have overlooked the sea and ironically, we are continuing to do so, even today.

The recent verdict of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) concerning the delimitation of the maritime boundary between Bangladesh and Myanmar in the Bay of Bengal has opened an avenue for additional sea area in the continental shelves. This sea area offers enormous economic opportunities, such as sea-based trade and commerce, deep sea fishing, exploration and exploitation of hydrocarbon and minerals, energy generation etc. Time has come for us to look for an integrated and sustainable approach towards the ocean to extract maximum benefit out of it. This can only be achieved through a well formulated maritime policy for Bangladesh.

If it is accepted that a national policy is a broad statement of guidelines in pursuit of national objectives, a national maritime policy may be defined as: “the policy formulated to achieve the coordinated rationalised use of the total maritime assets of the state, to the maximum benefit of national interests.” In other words, this policy should embrace all activities in which the sea or maritime environment is used. It is clear that such a policy is required in order to mobilise our efforts to explore the vast maritime resources. The maximum use of these resources could transform this country into a maritime power.

About 70 percent of our planet is covered by oceans. Traditionally, seas are used as lanes of communication, trade and as vast reservoirs of living and non-living resources. The sea facilitates inexpensive transportation of people and goods in bulk and also provides valuable mineral resources and seafood for people's livelihood. The Third United Nations Conventions on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS III) forms the basis on which a coastal state's jurisdiction, rights, privileges and obligations at sea are built.

The extensive use of the sea as the cheapest and easiest means of mass transportation contributed to the internationalisation of trade, commerce and industry and thereby linked the entire world. Today, around 90 percent of the world's trade is carried out through the sea lanes. Most significantly, vast resources of oil, gas, minerals and fish have become crucial to the economic success of coastal states. These resources are likely to have a profound impact on the formation of power blocs, and may well shape the destiny of the nations in the 21st century, because the 21st century is going to be a 'century of seas.'

The Indian Ocean is the third largest body of water on Earth, and a birthplace of maritime civilisations. According to Alfred Thayer Mahan, a renowned maritime strategist, “Whoever controls the Indian Ocean, dominates Asia. This ocean is the key to the seven seas. In the 21st century, the destiny of the world will be decided in these waters”. The Indian Ocean region contains one third of the world's population and 40 percent of its oil reserves. It carries heavy traffic of petroleum and petroleum products from the oilfields of the Persian Gulf and Indonesia. Any interruption of this traffic would have devastating effect on the economies of developing countries along the ocean front and would worsen the existing global energy crisis. With the rise of security concerns in the Indian Ocean, the importance of the Bay of Bengal has risen simultaneously.

Currently, there is a growing global concern about the importance of the oceans for sustainable development. Being a small coastal state, the ocean is of special significance to Bangladesh. We have a coastline of almost 710km. Since the recent verdict by the ITLOS, we are in possession of 1, 11,631 sq. km of sea area. An equitable share of sea area is also expected once the delimitation of maritime boundary between Bangladesh and India is finalised.

Economy is the chief determining factor in the present world of power politics. The deposits of petroleum and natural gas under the sea floor are the most important fuels of the contemporary world economy. Lots of minerals -- metallic and non-metallic, can be extracted from the sea water itself, from offshore alluvial deposits, or from the continental shelf. Other minerals of commercial value can also be found in near-shore sand bodies. India and Myanmar are producing a large quantity of oil and gas from its offshore areas. Bangladesh, being a similar coastal country, has immense potential for exploring petroleum and natural gas from her sea areas. The Bay of Bengal has a special tropical marine ecosystem and an abundance of wetlands, marshes, and mangroves which may help increase the productivity of near-shore fish species. Since Bangladesh can now claim sovereignty over the resources in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the Bay of Bengal, it has become possible for her to explore living and non-living resources. Almost 90 percent of her energy requirements in terms of fuel travel by sea. The two SLOCs connected with two sea ports, Chittagong and Mongla, provide access to the oceans and act as vital trade links. Thereby, any sort of disruption to these SLOCs, whether in war or peace, will have a disastrous effect and may cripple our economy.

As a party to UNCLOS and having passed a Maritime Zones Act, Bangladesh has accepted the responsibility to exercise the rights and obligations of a coastal state in its maritime zones. The responsibility to properly govern the territory, including obligations such as providing for safe navigation, search and rescue services, conservation of the marine environment, research and policing. In essence, it can be expected that a coastal state will ensure an environment in which seafarers and other people active at sea can go about their lawful business in an atmosphere of safety, security and fairness. It is, thus, incumbent on a coastal state to maintain general Maritime Policy that creates an orderly and structured environment in which all maritime activities can flourish.

The Bay of Bengal is rich in fish resources, which plays a vital role in creating employment, protein supply, poverty alleviation and exports. So far, we were fishing close to the coast. Now is the time to think beyond and venture into deep-sea fishing. Enormous possibilities of minerals like oil and gas can help Bangladesh in attaining energy security. Security is a prime requirement of any foreign investor before committing to a joint venture for exploration and exploitation of the maritime area. The present volume of trade will continue to grow in future with the gradual social, industrial and economic development of the country. Ensuring security of SLOCs is the responsibility of the coastal state. The sea has the potential of developing regional connectivity. Our sea ports can be used by the regional countries and it can add to our source of revenue.

Chittagong port is going to play a strategically important role in the future. Photo: Star File

The Bay of Bengal has become a centre of attention of regional and extra-regional powers due to the discovery of a substantial amount of natural gas off the Indian and Myanmar coasts and the possibility of more discoveries in the EEZ of Bangladesh. India and China are competing with each other for a share of the gas from Myanmar for their future energy security. In addition to this, the modernisation drive of the neighbouring navies and increasing influence of extra-regional powers including China and USA in the maritime scenario are posing greater challenges for Bangladesh than ever before. Bangladesh Navy has become the leading force in safeguarding the country's economic interests and exercising maritime control within the EEZ and the continental shelves due to the lack of capabilities of other agencies involved in this field.

Other non-military maritime security threats like terrorism, smuggling, pollution, poaching, piracy, and human trafficking would continue to pose a severe threat to Bangladesh's maritime interests; however, these threats can be reduced in future by adopting a variety of national measures and international co-operation. Within the region, we need to build a common vision of maritime security, conflict prevention, unhindered passage of trade, counter terrorism and piracy, disaster prevention and humanitarian relief, and peaceful settlement of disputes, in a balanced and inclusive manner that safeguards these regional commons.

It goes without saying that our ability to shape our maritime security environment will require the development of credible naval presence with adequate assets proportionate to our defence and security interests, as well as, those required to discharge the role and responsibility expected of Bangladesh by the regional community. As a diplomatic instrument, the Navy has key attributes, i.e. access, mobility, reach and versatility to undertake any responsibilities in the maritime sector.

Free access to the sea is the gift of nature to a country. Bangladesh, in spite of having direct access to the sea, has not been able to use the sea and its resources to her full advantage, mainly due to lack of maritime awareness amongst the people and a land-oriented mindset of decision-makers. Now, time has come to pay immediate attention to this sector and take comprehensive and adequate steps to develop maritime awareness in the nation. The sea can provide us much needed economic prosperity with much less investment and ultimately it can contribute to a strong defence.

The proposed maritime policy should enable various agencies, departments and ministries to have a common objective in implementing directives and decisions. The policy should create awareness among the people of the overall national maritime scenario and how it will enhance their livelihood.

The objectives of the maritime policy should be to optimise the development and use of national maritime assets for the benefit of the whole country. As such, the government should be able to ensure that the maritime industry and its associated activities as well as the broad maritime community is promoted; the country's maritime interests are protected; the natural aesthetics, biotic diversity, ecosystem, and human life within the confines of the marine and coastal environments are protected; the renewable and non-renewable marine resources are used to their optimum; the healthy maritime environment is maintained and viable and balanced maritime forces (Navy and Coast Guard) for providing security to the maritime zone, are maintained.

The Bay of Bengal is full of natural resources. Photo: Star File

We need to formulate the national maritime policy, integrating all the concerned ministries, stakeholders etc. This policy should introduce a national maritime governing body, who will act as the regulatory authority related to all maritime activities of the country and should accommodate the expertise from various maritime disciplines.

We should introduce oceanographic, marine science, and other related disciplines to our universities for Human Resource Development in the maritime sector. In addition, there needs to be a massive campaign to generate awareness among the policy makers and the public regarding the importance of sea and its uses.

Unfortunately, there is no purpose-built oceanographic scientific research vessel in Bangladesh. We should think of acquiring an Ocean Research Vessel (ORV), which can be used by all the related organisations, and manned and operated by the Navy. Bangladesh also needs to establish a National Institute of Oceanography for the promotion of necessary research and development in this regard. This Institute and students of the universities of related discipline could use the ORV for their practical and research work at sea.

Security is a prime requirement for prosperity. Think of the indirect cost of the acts of piracy on the Somali coast. The international community has to count millions of dollars for re-routing their ships. Naval forces of many nations are always present in the area to provide security for their trade. Likewise, we must strengthen our Navy as well as Coast Guard to a level which will be able to provide the required security at sea and coast.

Bangladesh has the potential to become a strong maritime power. Our country will be further improved by enhancing our maritime power and a national maritime policy should be formulated and implemented to bring this about. A maritime policy will establish a better way to integrate the management of maritime affairs of various ministries and exploit the maritime potential to its full extent. In this context, the governing body, such as a National Maritime Commission, will become the focal point for all maritime stakeholders and a balanced Navy and Coast Guard will be able to maintain security in the maritime zone.

The author is Asst Chief of Naval Staff (Operations), Naval Headquarters.



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