An Ocean of Wealth: Sri Lanka Must Make Good Use of It

Last week saw the hosting of the World Oceans Summit in Singapore by The Economist newspaper in association with National Geographic, which brought together over 200 global leaders, including scientists, businesses, and representatives from governments, NGOs, and other key stakeholders to talk about sustainability, economics and the world’s oceans. These issues are very relevant to Sri Lanka, being an island surrounded by one of the world’s largest oceans.

The Indian Ocean is rich in both biological and non-biological resources and possesses a strategic significance due to its linkage to international trade. As highlighted in a previous article, the Indian Ocean is facing a number of environmental challenges which need careful attention of all those who are making use of it for various economic activities. Sri Lanka’s geo-strategic importance in the Indian Ocean is further enhanced due to the peaceful environment that it enjoys after the end of the war. The country has now gained the chance to explore the ‘hidden’ natural resources. But, are we really making use of our “ocean wealth”?

Sri Lanka’s Ocean Wealth

The Ocean itself is an important economic resource. It makes a remarkable contribution to Sri Lanka’s economy. The coastal zone of Sri Lanka consists of around 25% of total land area, hosts around one third of the country’s population, accommodates over two thirds of all industrial facilities, and over 80% of tourism infrastructure (1). Marine fisheries play a pivotal role in Sri Lanka’s fish supply. According to the National Aquaculture Development Authority (NARA), in 2011, around 86% of total fish supply has come from marine fisheries. The marine fish catch comprises of 58% from coastal areas and 42% from off-shore.

Natural resources in the coastal as well as in offshore areas play an important role in the economy. The contribution of the coastal sector to the national GDP is on the rise (2). The share of coastal GDP in national GDP has increased from around 35% in 1983 to 43% in 2005. Agriculture, fisheries, trade, and tourism have been playing a major role in growing the coastal economy over the years. The contribution must have now increased further following the end of war in 2009.

Additionally, Sri Lanka has been blessed to discover oil reserves in the Indian Ocean, which could open a host of new economic opportunities for the country. As of now, there have been no focused investigations of gas hydrate potential in the Sri Lankan off-shores. However, existing data shows that oil and/or gas potential exists in the Mannar Basin to the west, Cauvery Basin to the north, Bengal fan deposits to the east, and newly identified sedimentary basins to the south of the island (3).

The potential gas hydrates zone offshore Sri Lanka could cover an area of approximately 50,000 km2 – the equivalent of 364 x 10*(14) Kwh of energy (4).

Also, in the case of Sri Lanka, the prevailing peaceful environment has opened new avenues for a number of economic activities – for instance in tourism products like whale and dolphin watching. According to experts, Sri Lanka is one of the easiest places to see blue whales, and the warm continental shelf around the country makes it attractive for feeding for these animals. However, as has been warned by experts, it is imperative that there are comprehensive policy and regulatory frameworks in place to avoid unsustainable exploitation of such resources.

Threats to Ocean Wealth

The Indian Ocean region in general, and Sri Lanka in particular, faces a number of environmental problems which affect the sustainable utilization of the available resources. There have been several claims of over-exploitation of certain fish species. As of now, there has been little or no bio-economic modeling carried out to compute the ‘maximum sustainable yield levels’ for important fish species. In addition, as mentioned in the Fisheries Outlook of NARA, Sri Lanka does not have reliable data on the extent to which the country’s fishery resource is under the threat of over-exploitation. Substantial data and research gaps exist, and must be urgently addressed.

Meanwhile, there have been a number of recent problems relating to sharing of fishery resources with neighbouring countries – for instance, the intrusion of Indian trawler fishermen in Sri Lankan waters.

The time has also arrived to take appropriate actions to solve the long-discussed issues such as sea erosion, degradation of coral reefs, pollution, etc. It is important to take a note of the expected impacts of global climate change as they can hinder the users from reaping the benefits.

Addressing the Challenges

The issues related to the ocean environment are complex and interrelated. There is no single action that can provide solutions to the multiplicity of problems relating to the ocean resources.

The coast of Matara beyond Brown's Hill (c) Anushka Wijesinha 2011

Actions have to be taken at sectoral, national, regional, and global levels. At national level, it is important to identify the resource gaps in finding solutions to the above-mentioned environmental issues – be it human or financial resources. Moreover, as the issues are multi-faceted, more multidisciplinary research is required – it should include an analysis of scientific as well as socio-economic aspects.

Although national level responses are necessary, they are not sufficient. Regional and international collaboration has to play a key role. Regional collaboration is vital particularly in conducting research, knowledge transfer and capacity building. It also requires a strong institutional framework, which can be built upon existing institutions at regional level.

Attendees at the World Oceans Summit looked at the state of the oceans today, and addressed the following crucial questions:

• Can ocean economics and ocean conservation run hand in hand?

• How can we responsibly govern ocean resources for the benefit of both humans and wildlife?

• Looking towards the future, can the oceans continue to feed a growing global population?

It’s time for Sri Lanka and the South Asian region to ask itself these same questions, and draw up a comprehensive roadmap for maximizing our ocean wealth, while minimizing the threats to it.


Related links:

An article by National Geographic Magazine on ‘Why the Ocean Matters’

Blogs from the World Oceans Summit


(1)UNEP (2001), Sri Lanka State of the Environment 2001

(2)Nayanananda, O.K. (2007), The Study of Economic Significance of Coastal Region of Sri Lanka in the Context of Environmental Changes of Pre and Post Tsunami, Coast Conservation Department and The Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources

(3)SAARC Energy Centre (2010), Gas Hydrates Resource Potential of South Asia, Islamabad, Pakistan