Where does the international dimension fit into maritime water security?

The world has got a lot smaller. Recently I attended an excellent conference in Gibraltar on conservation in the UK Overseas Territories (those bits of former empire which are reluctant to leave) and for which Britain and (the territories themselves) have responsibility.

The marine areas around some of the Overseas Territories is colossal. The UK and its territories still control nearly 7,000,000km2 which puts it in the top five of largest maritime zones in the world. These represent a huge responsibility but also a significant opportunity to demonstrate leadership in governance of these aquatic spaces.

There was a series of interviews at the conference by the BBC’s flagship environmental programme Costing the Earth which is now available here.

The programme makes the point that suddenly with satellite observation (funded by the Pew Foundation) the world has become a whole lot smaller and it is now possible to police spaces where meaningful regulation was formerly impossible.

Are there lessons though for inshore and estuarine management from these offshore spaces? Working with the Blue Marine Foundation, I was a member of one of the organisations which promoted the huge marine reserve around the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean. The reserve itself should have been uncomplicated. Distant water fishing fleets from Europe and South East Asia were to be excluded and the whole exclusive economic zone (over 500,000km2) closed to fishing. However, even in one of the remotest places in the world the whole endeavour became embroiled in competing rights. This is an issue which faces those arguing for water security everywhere.

The Chagos Islands houses a US military bases, Mauritius has a sovereignty claim and there has been a longstanding human rights claim against the UK Government by the former inhabitants who were evicted in the 1960s to make way for the Americans. A move to promote long term food security and protect the environment should not have antagonised these various parties – any common space will always have competing uses, but a decision not to exploit it must surely have been innocuous. Yet the reserve triggered a human rights claim and international arbitration by Mauritius over issues of sovereignty.

I have written the arbitration up for the Journal of Environmental Law and this is coming out shortly – but there is a fundamental lesson for all those seeking aquatic water security. Competing narratives exist over these shared spaces. Water security is just one of those narratives. Opportunities now exist via remote sensing and data harvesting (not just offshore but almost everywhere) to manage these spaces and promote water security in ways we are just starting to discover – but in doing so we must take time to understand other people’s narratives and engage with them – and do effective due diligence on the legal landscape, to get a firm grasp on the nature and extent of any rights we are seeking to affect. Acting in the public interest also potentially places you in the public spotlight.

There is however a greater public will to sustainably manage the aquatic environment than ever before, and a whole new armoury of effective tools.