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OP-ED: Investing in the blue economy

  • Published at 11:37 pm December 23rd, 2020
Representational photo: Bigstock

We must reach out to our oceans to further our progress to the highest levels possible

As Bangladesh makes its way to progress and development by maximizing the utilization of all of its available resources, there is still a highly underutilized and vast resource which has the capability to yield huge economic benefits and sustainable growth, if it is carefully planned, nurtured and put into effective use. 

Blue economy, what is it?

This is of course, the “blue economy.” Blue economy or “BE” is a term in economics which relates to the preservation and exploration of the marine environment. The World Bank states that the blue economy is the sustainable use of ocean resources for the economic growth, betterment of livelihoods, jobs creation, and the preservation of the ocean’s eco-system. 

The blue economy may encompass all economic activities related to the oceans, seas, and coasts and it may cover a broad range of interconnected sectors. The concept of a blue economy is an emerging one and it is stressed that the utilization of such resources should also be directly combined with the preservation of it through better stewardship of those “blue resources.” 

In other words, such resources are deemed to be precious and no one should view them as something to be exploited for quick gains. They should rather be viewed through the periscope of environmental protection and the permanent sustenance of its biodiversity. It may be noted that 15% of the protein that is consumed by people all across the world is provided from the sea; natural gas and oil constitute 30% of the sea resources; over 50% of magnesium is extracted globally from the seas; and even life-saving medication can be obtained from valuable resources originating from the sea.

Therefore, it is not at all surprising that Bangladesh’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Ambassador Rabab Fatima, has recently mentioned that we have to maximize the potential of our own blue economy, and she has rightfully recognized it as one of the most crucial opportunities for development which can accelerate and propel our overall growth capabilities. This stands to be even truer upon taking into consideration that our land-based resources are already extremely limited, and then add onto it a very highly dense population. 

Bangladesh’s 710km long coastline -- extending from the tip of St Martin’s Island in the southeast to the west coast of Satkhira -- and the 121,110sq-km sea area have exceptionally varying eco-systems, having major ecological and fiscal significance and advantageous possibilities.

Some advancements but Bangladesh is still lagging

There are 660km available to Bangladesh, but its mechanized boats and industrial trawlers are capable of fishing only up to 70km from the shoreline. Thus, there is still a significant amount of sea fishing frontier which Bangladesh has yet to take enough advantage of. 

In a recent conference, this was especially highlighted by the secretary, Marine Affairs Unit, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Rear Admiral (Retd) Md Khurshed Alam, and he further stated that the promotion and sustainability of the blue economy such as marine fishery, deep sea fishing of tuna, mining, shipping, and energy exploration remains untapped. In the same conference, experts opined that the nation’s private sector should step up to invest in the exploration and eventual capitalization of the blue economy. 

Furthermore, the Ministry of Fisheries and Livestock highlighted the necessity for deep-sea mapping, surveying, and eventually capitalizing on ocean fisheries’ resources in a sustainable method, in a research paper that was published in 2015. The same paper also stressed the need for an all-inclusive policy including a specific “ocean-act” which would enable the generation of a legal and regulatory framework in order to secure the sea-based resources. 

However, to this day, such beneficial advancements are yet to proceed ahead. Additionally, the Energy and Mineral Resources Division of the Ministry of Power, Energy and Mineral Resources, formed an administrative cell called the “Blue Economy Cell” in 2017 but there hasn’t been any real progress made with this apart from holding some discussion meetings. 

However, Bangladesh has made some advancement such as actively starting some field works with the required resources like coastal shipping and oceanic mineral mining and disaster management, and the creation of more grounds for tourism are also underway. Certain surveys have also been carried out with the assistance of foreign donations and there have been initiatives, with the goal of conservation of fisheries and prevention of theft of the same in the Bay of Bengal. 

Lastly, the seventh Five-Year Plan has called for numerous actions to be undertaken for maintaining a sustainable blue economy which includes renewable energy, fisheries, tourism, climate change, human resource, and transshipment, among others. 

Based on these kinds of initiatives and advancements, it is quite clear that the sustainable development of the blue economy is within the focus of Bangladesh. However, additional, more concrete, and actionable steps have to take place to jump-start this lucrative sector into full action. 

So far, the country has explored only a small number of blue economy sub-sectors such as fisheries and aquaculture, shipbuilding, ship-breaking, salt generation, and port facilities. 

The main point here is that Bangladesh must pay more attention in advancing its blue economy and look forward to embarking on this new frontier with the goal of utilizing it to its fullest potential.

Why we need to dive deep

The Philippines, China, Thailand, and Japan have been enjoying the vast benefits of their own blue economies for a very long time and a large percentage of their protein source is derived directly from their oceans. It is reported that Indonesia’s national economy depends largely on its sea resources and Australia is reported to earn $44 billion from the sea. 

Due to immense increases in population, adequate food supply and proper nutrition is always a matter of great concern, especially to a rapidly growing nation like Bangladesh. So, inevitably, more and more nations are diving into the blue economy in order to increase their food supplies and provide quality-based nourishment to its citizens. Even though Bangladesh’s economic growth trend has been positive, it must also utilize all the possible scopes for the expansion of exports and that’s where marine resources can play a very important role soon. 

The Sustainable Coastal and Marine Fisheries Project states that there are over 350 species of fish and sharks, over 30 species of shrimps and lobsters, as well as multiple species of crabs, snails, and other categories of seafood-based species. However due to Bangladesh’s inability to properly and fully take advantage of its blue resources, only a small percentage of fish production comes from the ocean. 

Bangladesh’s sea border is almost the same as its mainland, but sea fish constitutes only about 15% of its total fish production. In terms of the total tons of fish caught in the Bay of Bengal, the amount caught by Bangladeshi fishermen is still very small. Bangladesh is estimated to catch only 0.70 million tons of fish every year out of the total 8 million tons of fish available in the Bay of Bengal. 

This is because Bangladesh still has a relatively limited ability and capability to catch and process large quantities of fish on an annual basis. With the amount of usable territory which Bangladesh has, it is possible to earn much higher than it currently does every year by exploring oil-gas extractions, fishing, and further expansion of its ports, as well as tourism.

Bangladesh has settled maritime boundary disputes with Myanmar in 2012 and with India in 2014 through an arbitral method. The newly demarcated area of the Bay of Bengal has opened a new economic frontier for Bangladesh. It is reported that the country has 75 outer islands which could be utilized for tourists, both local and foreign. If Bangladesh can explore and exploit these resources using appropriate technology, the economy of Bangladesh can grow rapidly into an advanced one. 

Consequently, we must reach out to our oceans for the sake of furthering our progress to the highest levels possible. We cannot afford to miss out on any untapped resources which are so readily accessible to us and may very easily yield us great benefits if we simply invest and plan it out with first-rate research and experience-based knowledge. Investment and development of the blue economy can play a critical role in ensuring that Bangladesh successfully becomes a developed nation by 2041. 

Bangladesh is especially fortunate compared to so many landlocked nations because it has access and ownership of such a large amount of “blue space” which can be utilized. There are massive areas in the Bay of Bengal which have been recently acquired and if they are adequately utilized, significant earnings of foreign currencies could be achieved. Compared to land-based resources which are already very heavily utilized and exploited, there are vast amounts of untapped resources which are awaiting us in the ocean.

Another factor to consider is that with the increase of the population of the country, it would have to gradually become more dependent on sea-based energy resources; those resources could be endless renewable reserves in wind and solar energy. Additional sources of renewable energy could be derived from a better understanding and knowledge of the oceans such as the impact of wind, waves, high tide, and ebb tide and therefore more research and study is certainly required. 

The wind from the seas could be a source of great power which Bangladesh could use to further fuel its economic growth. The blue economy is not simply a source of food, but it is a vast and untouched source of energy in the form of gas and fuel. According to experts, the ocean also has valuable minerals such as Uranium and Thorium as well as of course, sand, which itself has various mineral components. 

Additionally, Bangladesh can also consider providing port facilities to its own land-locked neighbours such as Bhutan and Nepal as they will also require access to the ocean, and having such access is also considered to be one of the more significant components of a blue economy.

Proceed with adequate support and caution

Venturing into such a complex arena without full knowledge, guidance, and experience has a high chance of failure, which would lead to not ever being able to fully uncover and effectively produce the benefits. Therefore, it is vital that Bangladesh partner with organizations and external resources who are highly experienced with all the complexities and challenges that come with successfully bringing the blue resources into appropriate deployment. 

This will allow us to be able to make the most of our limited research and investigation capabilities in this area. It is noteworthy that Bangladesh is already making investments to increase capacity so that it can more effectively manage its marine resources in the most efficient manner. 

Therefore, it is also very important that there is buy-in and support for such “blue” initiatives from the highest levels of government as well as the political structure. Organizations, resources, and companies who are willing to invest into the blue economy must be given every motivation and incentive possible for them to move on ahead without any hindrance or delay. 

All necessary technical and educational resources should be readily available to such parties so that they may proceed seamlessly without any roadblocks. Given the vast possibilities of acquisition of wealth from the sea, Bangladesh must develop policies and laws to support national institutions which could deliver solutions to implement sustainable development in the blue economy and avail all the benefits which come from it. 

In order to get the best from sea resources, Bangladesh will have to push forward policies in cooperation with other countries in order to protect its own oceans from the negative impact of climate change, pollution, and over-fishing. The eco-systems must be preserved in order to be of any use to us for the long term, and it is unfortunate that such eco-systems are already being degraded very rapidly. 

This is not just an issue for Bangladesh, but it is something which must be dealt with in unison with other nations who also derive so many benefits from the maritime eco-system, aka, the “blue economy.”

Mamun Rashid is a partner with PwC Bangladesh. Views expressed in this article are his own.

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