Marine Environment Plagued by Pollution, UN Says

THE HAGUE, Netherlands, October 4, 2006 (ENS) - The world's marine environment is increasingly polluted with sewage and agricultural waste and littered with trash, according to a new report by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). The report, released today, finds that this rising pollution is having serious adverse health, economic and environmental impacts and warns that reversing course will not be easy.

"An estimated 80 per cent of marine pollution originates from the land and this could rise significantly by 2050 if, as expected, coastal populations double in just over 40 years time and action to combat pollution is not accelerated," said UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner. "We have a long way to go politically, technically and financially if we are to hand over healthy and productive seas and oceans to the next generation."

UNEP's State of the Marine Environment report also notes rising concern over the increasing damage and destruction of essential and economically important coastal ecosystems, including mangrove forests, coral reefs and seagrass beds.

The report has been compiled by UNEP's global program of action (GPA) for protection of the marine environment. The findings will be given to more than 60 national governments attending an intergovernmental review of the 10 year-old GPA initiative in Beijing, China, from October 16-20.

The study reports that sewage may be "the most serious problem" facing the marine environment, in part because it is the area where the least progress has been made.

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Over half of the wastewater entering the Mediterranean Sea is untreated. (Photo courtesy Greenpeace)

In many developing countries more than 80 percent of sewage entering the coastal zones is estimated to be raw and untreated, the report said.

Increasing coastal populations, inadequate treatment infrastructure and waste handling facilities are all contributing to the sewage problem, the report said.

Fixing the global sewage problem could cost at least $56 billion, UNEP warned.

The report finds the number of coastal dead zones has doubled every decade since 1960. This rise is directly linked to the rise in nitrogen and phosphorous from agricultural runoff, sewage and fossil fuel burning.

The problem was once largely confined to developed countries but is now spreading to developing ones, the report said.

National and international efforts to control marine litter - much of which is not biodegradable - have been implemented, the report said, but the problem "has steadily grown worse."

Marine litter comes from an array of sources, including municipal, industrial, medial, fishing boats and shipping discharges.

Destruction and changes to marine habitats are the direct result of increasing coastal population - some 40 percent of the world's population lives on the costal fringe, which is just over 7 percent of the land.

The report finds that the average population density in the coastal zone rose is set to rise from 77 people per square kilometer in 1990 to 115 in 2025.

The growth, in terms of more settlements, overuse of marine resources, pollution and damage and loss of ecosystems, is having serious impacts, the report said.

Close to 90 percent of coral reefs in Southeast Asia are threatened by human activity and the region's mangroves - important for coastal defense and fisheries - are under assault from aquaculture ponds and agriculture.

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Children in Manila Bay, Philippines, collecting litter in the harbour area. (Photo courtesy UNEP)

Wetlands are being filled in across the world. Close to a third of North America's wetlands have been lost to urban development with agriculture claiming a further quarter, and some 50 percent of wetlands in southern and western Africa have been destroyed.

There is some good news in the report, which cites progress on cutting radioactive waste dumping as well as oil and chemical pollution.

The amount of oil entering the marine environment has fallen more than 60 percent since the mid-1980s, the report said.

Progress is mixed on controlling heavy metals, the report said, and sediment mobilization.

Some coastlines, once fed by regular amounts of sediments by rivers, are shrinking because the soils are being trapped by barrages upstream, UNEP said, while others are suffering for the opposite reason, as artificially high amounts of sediments are choking seagrass beds, silting up coral reefs and clogging up other important habitats and coastal ecosystems.

The report notes several areas in need of "urgent attention," including the continued impact of dams, new streams of chemicals and the state of coastal and freshwater wetlands. It warns that global warming could cause sea levels to rise, increase the acidification of the oceans and bring a slew of other changes to the marine environment, particularly the Arctic.

The report also suggests efforts to improve monitoring and data collection on continents like Africa where the level of hard facts and figures on marine pollution "remains fragmented and woefully low."