ECC Platform Library


Sustainable Marine Resource Governance in the Indian Ocean Region

29 June, 2016
Dhanasree Jayaram

Indian Ocean, sea, marine resource

Indian Ocean, sea, marine resource
© Sztrapacska74/

India is all set to embark on exploration and other developmental activities pertaining to polymetallic sulphides in the Indian Ocean after a cabinet meeting chaired by Prime Minister Modi approved the signing of a contract between the Minister of Earth Sciences and the International Seabed Authority (ISA), that formalises India’s exclusive rights for exploration in the Central Indian Ridge, and South West Indian Ridge in the Indian Ocean for 15 years. India is not the only country that is actively tapping into the resources of the region, or is attempting to do so. China, South Korea and Germany have also been granted permission to prospect for polymetallic nodules and sulphides, increasing the potential for competition in the region.

The Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is one of the most geopolitically, geophysically and geoeconomically (the “three geos”) influential, as well as volatile, regions in the world. Resource security is an issue that elicits the way in which the “three geos” interact – also highlighting the need for exploring diplomatic and governance initiatives to promote cooperation and stability in the region.

The Geopolitical Race for Critical Resources in the IOR

With more countries joining the race for prospecting and harnessing the marine and coastal resources of the IOR – mainly rare earth elements (REEs) – the stakes have risen on many fronts. On the one hand, India is clearly wary of China’s growing presence and influence in the region. It has been alleged that China’s scientific and technological forays into the IOR are aimed at staking a claim to the ocean in the long run. On the other hand, like the U.S., the E.U., Japan, Australia and others, India would want to challenge China’s monopoly over REEs that are used in critical manufacturing sectors such as defence and electronics. China has exploited its dominance over the supply of REEs by restricting their exports through export tariffs and quotas; and by blocking exports to countries, as in the case of Japan (dispute over a Chinese fishing trawler captain’s detention by Japan).

In order to reduce its heavy dependence on China’s REE exports (which have been as high as 80 percent), Japan is not only investing heavily in deep-sea prospecting but also cooperating with countries such as  India – with the signing of the commercial contract between Indian Rare Earths Limited (IREL) and Toyota Tsusho Corporation (TTC) for the exploration and production of REEs. While India is hoping to bolster its deep-sea mining and production technology through ‘rare earth diplomacy’ with Japan, it has also acquired a deep-sea exploration ship ‘Samudra Ratnakar’ (“equipped with sophisticated deep-sea survey instruments like doppler profilers, multi-beam sonars, acoustic positioning systems, marine magnetometers and a marine data management system”) from South Korea.

The Other Major Drivers of the Blue Economy

The geoeconomic significance of the Indian Ocean stems from the opportunities it presents in the form of not only REEs, but also hydrocarbons, food and livelihood, and energy (wind, tidal, wave, thermal and biomass). The fact that IOR lies at the centre of the global petroleum market (in all the three sectors – upstream [such as Persian Gulf], midstream [such as the proposed Iran-Oman-India deep-sea gas pipeline] and downstream [the case of Singapore as a petroleum processing, storage and loading/unloading hub]) does not need further explanation. Indeed, what has boosted the prospects of the region are newer discoveries such as in the Western IOR – gas in Mozambique and Tanzania; oil deposits in Madagascar and Seychelles – that are now available for exploration.

Similarly, the region’s thriving fishing industry contributes heavily to its countries’ economies – employing millions directly (fishing and fish farming) indirectly (boat construction, fish processing etc), supplementing food security (by ensuring protein diet) and contributing about 15 percent of the world’s fish catch. With greater emphasis on advocacy of renewable energy, especially in regions with underdeveloped electricity grids, ocean energy is increasingly being recognised as a feasible option in the IOR – as seen in South Africa, the Persian Gulf, Southeast Asia, Australia and other sub-regions. India does not wish to be left behind as well, and the country has now become a member of the International Energy Agency – Ocean Energy Systems. All these facts and figures point towards the existence of a flourishing blue economy in the IOR.

Calling for Sustainable Marine Resource Governance in the IOR  

What is of utmost priority at this juncture is the setting up of a governance mechanism for the sustainable management of the resources of the IOR. The rate at which the region’s natural resources are being exploited is perilous on many counts. Pollution in the IOR has already come under the scanner, with plastic debris and chemical runoff pinpointed as the cause for hypoxia as well as fierce cyclones in the Northern IOR. Reports have shown that deep-sea mining activities could harm ecosystems by causing marine pollution, destroying habitat and biodiversity. Conservationists claim that due to the lack of understanding of deep-sea environment that is considered highly sensitive, the risks of “seabed habitat degradation over vast ocean areas, species extinctions, reduced habitat complexity, slow and uncertain recovery, suspended sediment plumes, toxic plumes from surface ore dewatering, pelagic ecosystem impacts, undersea noise, ore and oil spills in transport, and more” are high.

The ISA has, however, labelled seabed mining as an environmentally better process in comparison to terrestrial mining, while acknowledging the potential risks mentioned above; which is why it lays thrust on exploration and exploitation with “minimal environmental footprint.” Over-exploitation of resources is another issue that the IOR countries have to address. Overfishing has emerged as an immediate concern but deep-sea mining poses a much bigger challenge in the long-term. Under the auspices of the ISA, seabed and subsoil beyond national jurisdiction are treated as the ‘Global Commons’ and therefore, can be used only “for the benefit of all humankind.”

Conservation is mostly overlooked by most agreements and institutions governing sectoral issues concerning the oceans – shipping (International Maritime Organisation, IMO), fishing (the global network of regional fisheries management organisations, RFMOs) and mining (ISA). The principal law governing the oceans – United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) – also does not adequately address conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity. An Implementing Agreement in this direction has not yet seen the light of day. At the same time, those arrangements that are aimed at conservation such as the Convention on Biological Diversity have limited regulatory authority and rely chiefly on voluntary measures. Although a sectoral approach cannot be done away with, there needs to be better coordination and cooperation among various institutions and agencies.

There is an urgent requirement for designing appropriate governance frameworks that define allocation, access and benefit-sharing norms as well as designate Ecologically or Biologically Significant Marine Areas (EBSAs) in the IOR. Areas under national jurisdiction, including Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) require governance mechanisms not only at the international and national levels, but also at sub-regional and regional levels, as environmental challenges do not recognise politically-assigned maritime boundaries. The Regional Seas Conventions and Action Plans is a step in the right direction, as it “aims to address the accelerating degradation of the world’s oceans and coastal areas through the sustainable management and use of the marine and coastal environment, by engaging neighbouring countries in comprehensive and specific actions to protect their shared marine environment.”

The only organisation that covers the entire IOR – Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) – and other regional organisations in the region such as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), East African Community (EAC), and Indian Ocean Commission have a large role to play in developing environmental governance mechanisms.

What is also important is that climate change, which is already said to be having an adverse impact on resource and livelihood security in the IOR, should be integrated into the marine resource governance mechanisms. Ocean acidification caused by rising sea surface temperatures, rising sea levels, storm surges, stronger tropical cyclones are only some of the climate-related dangers that the region faces. There is a need to build technical, financial and institutional capacities among the countries of the region for mitigation and adaptation. And this would be possible only through climate diplomacy, involving all the major regional players as well as external players (in the form of their assistance) as the IOR countries are at varying levels of development, with an overwhelming majority falling into the categories of developing and least developed countries (LDCs).

India, with its desire to expand its influence in the Indo-Pacific region, particularly the IOR, could be at the forefront of sustainable marine resource governance by initiating programmes through some of these regional organisations, of which it is a member. In an attempt to transform India’s outlook towards the IOR, Prime Minister Modi coined the term, “SAGAR” (literally translates into ocean) that stands for “Security and Growth for All in the Region.” As some experts suggest, it should ideally stand for “Sustainability and Growth for All in the Region.” Whether it is security or sustainability, environmental security, governance and diplomacy should feature among its pillars.

[This article is written as a part of the adelphi-MARG project Climate Diplomacy, supported by the German Federal Foreign Office.]

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.

Dhanasree Jayaram is Project Associate, Manipal Advanced Research Group (MARG), Manipal University, Karnataka, India

ArticleClimate Diplomacy
Adaptation & Resilience
Climate Change
Climate Diplomacy
Minerals & Mining
Sustainable Transformation



Adaptation & Resilience

All countries will need to adapt to some of the environmental, social and economic impacts of climate change that are already unavoidable. Food security, livelihoods, water resource availability and public health are some affected areas. People living in poverty are more vulnerable, having a lower capacity to adapt. Thus, it is essential to promote resilience building. The adaptation and resilience aspects need to be mainstreamed into planning by policy makers and the private sector as well as integrated into development strategies.

Biodiversity & Livelihoods

Nature protection is most sustainable if it essentially contributes to the long-term stability of human needs. Today many regions around the world are confronted with increasing destruction of the natural foundations of life. The consequences of wide-ranging resource destruction are no longer regionally limited, but rather represent a global threat. Those affected are mainly rural populations, who find the sources of their income and the foundations of their way of life swept away. The depletion and destruction of natural resources goes hand in hand with decreasing agricultural yields and increasing poverty, which in turn forces the affected populations to deplete the remaining resources.

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Capacity Building

On the one hand, conflicts are caused by structural factors, such as economic and social inequality or environmental destruction. On the other hand, conflicts are fuelled by a lack of democratic structures, deficient mechanisms of non-violent conflict settlement, inadequate rule of law, the destruction of social and cultural identity and the disregard of human rights. Against this backdrop, development policies have been dedicated to a broad concept of security, which comprises political, economic, ecological and social stability. As a consequence, development cooperation agencies and actors have developed a broad spectrum of approaches for conflict prevention and transformation as well as for sustainable use of natural resources.

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Civil Society

Civil society is the first victim of environmental pollution, under-development and conflicts. Economically disadvantaged and politically marginalized population groups are particularly affected by violent conflicts as well as increasing resource degradation. Simultaneously, civil society is a fundamental pillar for implementing sustainable development. It contributes in many ways to strengthening conflict prevention and plays a significant role in the peaceful and democratic development of states. It must be supported to strengthen civil rights, adherence to human rights in general and democratic participation.

Climate Change

Climate change resulting from the emission of greenhouse gases represents one of the vital challenges for international environmental policy. Flooding, droughts, shifting of climate zones and increasingly frequent and intense extreme weather events will have serious economic and social consequences for entire regions. The climate problem is also directly linked to the question of future energy generation.

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Climate Diplomacy

To address the challenges posed by climate change, a new profile of climate diplomacy is evolving. This utilises a full range of policies, including development cooperation, conflict prevention efforts, and humanitarian assistance, in addition to more traditional measures of climate change adaptation and mitigation. Moving from a risk analysis of climate-related threats to well-timed preventive action requires a greater commitment to integrating climate change concerns into development, foreign, and security policies. Examples include strengthening diplomatic networks, building new alliances with partners, and raising awareness – not only of potentially negative climate change impacts, but also of opportunities to embark on a sustainable transformation of our societies.

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Climate action entails an array of economic, social, political and environmental co-benefits. It provides an opportunity for economic growth and new jobs. Many investments can take into account climate considerations without becoming more costly. Further important co-benefits include: improved energy security, less local air and water pollution, health benefits as well as ecosystem and biodiversity protection.

Conflict Transformation

In order to overcome the structural causes of violent conflicts and thus bring about an improvement in the framework conditions for peaceful and fair development, it is essential to have long term and broadly planned peace development and peace advancement. Various governmental and non-governmental, national and international actors and groups are involved in these processes.

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Climate change and development are inextricably linked. Climate change endangers the development agenda and has the potential to reverse development goals. Furthermore, successful mitigation of climate change heavily depends on development choices around the world. Therefore, development strategies need to be climate-compatible to provide long-term success, and there are viable policy options that support this compatibility. Many mitigation and adaptation activities can present development opportunities to developing countries and avoid the lock-in to environmentally damaging technologies.

Early Warning & Risk Analysis

The reasons for the development and escalation of conflicts and the incidence of risks are multifaceted and complex. Simultaneously, the assessment of the specific causes in the form of risk and conflict analyses can contribute to a better understanding of these processes and make it possible to provide warning of negative developments, or ideally help prevent them. In the context of natural resource use, risks and conflicts have gained increasing attention in the past years. The debate on possible future water wars is merely one example.

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The well-being of individuals, communities and nations depends on the availability of energy resources. The gap between energy supply and demand appears to be growing, making the world vulnerable to serious economic shocks. At the same time, the burning of fossil fuels causing climate change is one of the vital challenges of international environmental policy. So far, only rudimentary approaches exist for shaping climate and energy security in a sustainable way. The components of a strategy that can contribute to reducing vulnerabilities related to climate change and energy policy include a greater role for renewable energies, the improvement of energy efficiency and a stronger decentralisation of energy supply.

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Environment & Migration

The economic, social and environmental consequences of climate change aggravate the breakdown of eco-system-dependent livelihoods and are likely to become dominant drivers of long-term migration. Natural disasters already cause massive shorter-term displacement and the number of temporarily displaced people is likely to further increase with climate change. For vulnerable populations in vulnerable regions, such as the Sahel zone or the Ganges delta, migration often becomes the sole survival strategy. In order to address climate-related displacement and migration successfully, knowledge of effective adaptation and an improved understanding of how environmental change affects human mobility is essential. 

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Climate finance, from all sources, plays a key role in supporting and enabling adaptation and mitigation action as well as climate and energy innovation. The Paris Agreement ensured that the Green Climate Fund and the Global Environment Facility are at the core of climate finance architecture as entities entrusted with the operation of the Financial Mechanism of the UNFCCC. Increasing climate finance from all relevant public and private sources is crucial. Furthermore, much needs to be done to redirect finance flows to sustainable paths, e.g. reducing fossil fuel subsidies, introducing maritime and air transportation taxes. The conditions for green investment in developing countries should also be improved.


Forests are disappearing at an alarming rate. Competition for forest resources triggers, exacerbates, or finances numerous crises and conflicts in tropical developing countries. Illegal logging and timber trade foster instability and sometimes violent conflict by strengthening illegal and armed groups, increasing corruption and exacerbating use and claim conflicts among local communities, the state and the business sector. Forests are a vital resource to poor people but they can also become areas of conflict. Sustainable management of forest resources is therefore key to preventing violent conflict over and within forests.

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Gender plays an important role as a category of conflict for many reasons. The interlinkages between gender, environment and conflicts are complex and much research is still needed. Existing insights suggest that conflicts may worsen gender inequalities that existed before the outbreak of violence. The unequal distribution of land property rights in many parts of the world serves as an example. Moreover, women (and children) are among those most affected by both violent conflict and natural disasters. At the same time, women carry much of the burden of trying to implement rehabilitation measures after crisis events.

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Land & Food

Increasing water scarcity, desertification and crop failures due to extreme weather events are becoming more and more of a threat to global food production. While the world’s population continues to grow rapidly, food production is unable to keep pace. Due to the global food crisis in 2008, the number of hungry people reached the symbolic one billion threshold for the first time – corresponding to about 16 percent of world population. Food insecurity may be a consequence or cause of conflicts. Violent conflicts often lead to the destruction of agricultural infrastructure and means of production, as well as to the displacement of local communities.

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Minerals & Mining

In the past, the discovery and tapping of valuable or strategic resources like valuable minerals, oil and natural gas, particularly in developing and emerging countries, has often led to large scale environmental contamination and negative development. The "resource curse" of some countries shows that the wealth from resource yields is frequently unfairly distributed; instead of serving development it advanced the formation of corrupt elites and in some cases even led to conflicts and civil wars. Measures in various sectors and at all levels are important in order to use the potential of these natural resources in a manner that is sustainable and prevents conflicts.

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Private Sector

The spread of violent conflict not only affects people but also companies located in such regions. Destruction of investments and infrastructure, collapse of markets and trade partnerships, flight and expulsion of employees are phenomena of conflicts and environment-induced crises that directly affect companies in unstable regions. Almost all branches of the economy thus have a clear interest in a stable and peaceful environment for their activities. Conversely, the business sector plays an important role in the interaction of economic growth, social development and a healthy environment, all of which can advance peace and sustainable development. 

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Environmental issues have a significant security dimension. Access to, and overuse of, natural resources often play a key role in civil wars or other forms of internal domestic conflict. This is compounded by climate change and environmental degradation. Climate change is now widely recognised as a non-traditional, risk-multiplying threat that will have increasing security impacts. Key risks with possible implications for human and national security include water scarcity, food crises, natural disasters, and displacement. More preventive diplomacy and advocacy is needed to address the strategic implications of climate and environmental change.

Sustainable Transformation

Sustainable Transformation allows societies to profit from a growing, environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive economy – especially in emerging and developing countries. This requires a higher up-front investment, but the benefits of a sustainable transformation in the medium and long term are significant. For instance, energy cost savings and reducing the impact of price volatility offer major incentives for deploying renewable energies and promoting energy efficiency. Such benefits exist in all key sectors of the economy.

Technology & Innovation

Innovations and technologies are already readily available and affordable but their global diffusion and uptake remains a challenge. Innovation and technology are crucial to achieving ambitious climate change mitigation and adaptation targets. However, research and development often do not receive appropriate public support. Developing countries can leapfrog high-carbon industrialisation phases by adopting, deploying and improving existing innovations and technologies. For this, it is essential to minimise financial, administrative and political barriers.


The availability of freshwater resources in sufficient quantity and quality is essential for the preservation of human health and sound ecosystems. The use of water resources is also vital, however, for economic development: whether for agriculture, industrial production or for electricity generation. The world's freshwater resources are distributed very unevenly in terms of geography and seasons. In addition, water shortage is becoming more prevalent in several regions due to population growth, economic development, urbanisation and increasing environmental pollution. Thus, water resources can hold potential for conflicts between parties who have different interests and needs.

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The environment in Asia is already under tremendous pressure as a result of the unsustainable use of land, forests, water and even air in many regions. Climate change will only exacerbate these challenges. Rising sea levels will likely endanger densely populated areas, changes in the monsoon patterns can strongly impact agriculture, melting glaciers will increase long-term water scarcity, and extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall and cyclones can pose further hazards.

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Central America & Caribbean

Natural disasters and water scarcity are key challenges for most of Central America and the Caribbean. These challenges will become even more pronounced as the climate changes. Weak resource and disaster risk management and land disputes pose additional security challenges for large parts of the region. Several countries of Central America and the Caribbean have limited adaptive capacities as they face political instability caused by high social inequality, crime, corruption, and intra-state conflicts.

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As one of the most developed and most densely populated regions in the world, Europe makes heavy use of its resources, resulting in difficult trade-offs and negative consequences for the environment and ecosystems. Land is used for settlements, agriculture and dense infrastructure, creating problems of soil degradation. Water resources are stressed due to unsustainable agricultural practices. Despite nature protection policies, Europe continues to lose biodiversity at an alarming pace. Some of these trends are exacerbated by climate change, which is expected, for instance, to lead to shifts in water availability.

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Global Issues

Resource scarcities, environmental pollution and climate change are not limited by national borders, but often have a transboundary or even global impact. These issues interact with political stability, governance structures and economic performance, and can trigger or worsen disputes and violent conflicts. Exacerbating some of these trends, climate change is likely to lead to the degradation of freshwater resources, declines in food production, increases in storm and flood disasters and environmentally induced migration. All these developments pose potential for conflict.

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Middle East & North Africa

The geopolitical position of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), its fossil fuel resources, high population growth and the political changes spurred by the Arab Spring all make the region one of the most dynamic in the world. Nevertheless, it is also one of the most arid and environmentally stressed. Dwindling water resources, limited arable and grazing land, high pollution from household and industrial waste, remnants of conflicts and increasing desertification are key environmental challenges.

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North America

Climate change has various impacts on the three North American countries of Canada, Mexico and the US. Canada and the US have well-developed adaptive capacities and foster the strengthening of capacities in other regions as well. With high per capita emissions, these two countries also bear a greater responsibility for a changing climate. Mexico has a sound national strategy for climate change adaptation, yet fewer capacities than Canada and the US. The poorer and rural populations of Mexico are especially vulnerable to climate change, due to an increased sensitivity and a lower adaptive capacity.

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Oceania & Pacific

In Oceania, population growth and economic development trends put a strain on oceanic and island ecosystems. Freshwater scarcity, overexploitation of fisheries, loss of land biodiversity, forests and trees, invasive species, soil degradation, increasing levels of settlement, poor management of solid and hazardous waste and disproportionate use of coastal areas are some of the problems. Climate change exacerbates most of these trends, while also raising questions about the future sovereignty of some island states.

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South America

South America has diverse and unique ecosystems and is very rich in biodiversity. Weak natural resource management, land disputes and extreme weather events bring about significant challenges for the region. While South America accounts for relatively few CO2 emissions, the changing climate will alter its ecosystems and greater climate variability will lead to more hurricanes, landslides, and droughts.

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Sub-Saharan Africa

In many African states, environmental security issues rank high on the political agenda. Throughout the continent, countries suffer from water scarcity, food insecurity and energy poverty. These chronic and worsening resource scarcities have severe livelihood implications and are exacerbated by political conflicts over access to and control over these resources. Climate change may seriously threaten political and economic stability in Africa. It may also put a severe strain on the capacities of states and societies to co-ordinate activities, to communicate and to organize.

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