Bangladesh's legal conquests of the sea in the delimitation case with Myanmar on 14 March, 2012 and with India on 07 July, 2014 are sure events quite worthy of going down in the annals of our history. By this couple of victories, Bangladesh as a littoral state, has secured her rights to territorial waters of 111,000 square kilometres from Myanmar and 19,467 square kilometres from India. The verdict of the United Nations Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) went largely in favour of Bangladesh, as it gave a substantial share of the extended continental shelf in both the cases. At the last count, Bangladesh's sovereign rights have been established on more than 118,000 sq km of maritime territory, 200 nautical miles (NM) of exclusive economic zone, and 354 NM of continental shelf. It has raised the hopes of tapping into plenty of resources from the Bay of Bengal, the largest bay in the world, considered by Bangladesh as its 'third
It is a resounding victory by all implications of the term, even if Bangladesh earns it deservedly after a win- win settlement by international arbitration. To ensure the rightful possession of a vast maritime boundary after a long period of territorial dispute and a pretty long legal battle must have added new feathers to the country's cap. It was really a big cause for concern that the exploitation of the vast deposits of petroleum and natural gas in our sea and the control of the geo-political hub of the region had long been beyond our reach. Now, the ball is in Bangladesh's court. Therefore, it is better to think of utilizing this vast marine possession most pragmatically than to keep basking in the triumphant success.
On mature consideration of the things concerned, Sheikh Hasina's government has attached great importance to making optimum utilization of the natural resources in the Bay and its geo-politically strategic location. The two consecutive legal victories leading to the rightful possession in the sea have helped Bangladesh establish sovereign rights over the living and nonliving resources in the vast maritime boundaries including the Exclusive Economic Zone and the continental shelf beyond. In the wake of this success, the government has undertaken the 'Blue Economy' initiative, to ensure sustainable development through proper utilization of the potentials of the sea and marine resources. Hiring a host of experts from abroad, they are trying to explore the possibilities that the Bay can yield. Bangladesh is moving ahead with a 'Bay of Bengal partnership for Blue Economy' to secure sustainable development among the coastal or littoral states ensuring 'an inclusive and people-centric' economy to be known as blue economy. Blue economy has, nowadays, become a buzzword for sustainable development particularly in drafting the post-2015 development goals. To achieve these goals, Bangladesh has adopted a blue economy outlook and accordingly, set technological and financial partnerships. The government is now seeking cooperation from other experienced countries to enhance its capacity to fully and sustainably exploit the blue resources. Such collaboration amongst countries is based on certain universal principles of engagement, i.e. mutual respect and trust, mutual benefits and equitable sharing of benefits etc.
Bangladesh is, however, at a nascent stage of development with regard to the implementation of blue economy. But the progress is slower than expected. As a matter of fact, other than the workshops held in September last year (2014), no substantive initiatives have been undertaken, nor are there as yet any effective plans for any follow-ups. Whereas, it is essential to create a robust maritime domain awareness among the stakeholders. There should have been closer observation and, more importantly, creation of policy frameworks to attract critical private investment for our Blue Economy. The Bay of Bengal and its 1.4 billion people will experience a transformation if the blue economy drives are properly realized, but there would be lots of challenges lying ahead of Bangladesh, which include equitable and beneficial sharing of resources, governance in terms of both ownership and partnership and the security issues.
There is also cause for greater alarm. The hawk-eyed global economic powers are combing through the lands and waters across the globe for mineral extraction. It would be very tough on our part to make the best use of the hard-earned maritime resources for our own interest escaping the prying eyes of the profit-sucking financial vampires and predatory economic imperialists. However, the task is not as such impossible. The first thing we have to do for the conservation and protection of our oceanic resources is to master the knowledge about it. The offshore oil and gas production is no easy task. It is more challenging than land-based installations. A cursory glimpse into the world maritime resources would reveal the gravity of the subject.
Economy is the chief determining factor in the present world of power politics, and petroleum greases its wheels. The deposits of petroleum and natural gas under the seafloor are the most important fuels of the contemporary world economy. Lots of minerals- metallic and non-metallic-- can be extracted from the seawater itself, from offshore alluvial deposits, or from the continental shelf. Hydrocarbon fuels are the most precious among the non-metallic minerals. They are generally located in deep waters. Other minerals of commercial value, such as, ilmenite (a mixture of iron and titanium oxide), tin, monazite (a rare earth), zircon, and chromites can also be found in near-shore sand bodies.
As far as the ocean oil is concerned, the Persian Gulf is the largest oil-producing region in the world. People are lately focusing more on offshore oil exploration. The major sites of exploration activity are the north-western coast of Australia, the Andaman Sea, the coast of Africa, south of the Equator, and the south-western coast of Madagascar. Searching for offshore petroleum and natural gas has also been going on in the Bay of Bengal, both of which are believed to have very large reserves. However, apart from the countries of the Persian Gulf, only India is producing a large quantity of oil from its offshore areas. Therefore, Bangladesh, being a similar littoral country, has immense potential for exploring petroleum and natural gas from the waters of the Bay of Bengal it has possessed. Metal-bearing deposits on the deep-sea floor, consisting of nodules, crusts, and accumulations of metallic sulphides from deep vents, are also of great economic value. Mining for the nodules, which contain manganese, iron, copper, nickel, titanium, and cobalt, and small traces of other metals can also contribute to the economy of the developing countries like Bangladesh.
The Bay of Bengal has a special tropical marine ecosystem, and an abundance of wetlands, marshes, and mangroves, which may help increase the productivity of near-shore fish species. The exploitation of these resources can be carried out even by small-scale fisheries. The major coastal species like shrimp, croakers, snappers, skates, and grunts are usually caught by littoral countries, and the pelagic fish like tuna, billfish and the like which are found in tropical and subtropical waters are caught mostly by the world's major fishing nations (Japan, South Korea, and Russia etc). Shrimp is the most important commercial species for coastal countries, and India is having the largest catch of it. In addition, small quantities of sardines, mackerel, and anchovies can also be exploited by the littoral states. Since Bangladesh now can claim sovereignty over resources of an exclusive economic zone in the Bay of Bengal, it has become possible for her to increase national income by selling their fishing rights to the major fishing nations, which have the capital and technology to exploit pelagic resources.
However, to select the right buyers of the fisheries and the exploiters of oil and gas is really a difficult task many countries/companies are jockeying for it. Some have already come up with lucrative proposals. We, however, should not give consent under any ostentatious offer, nor should we succumb to any geopolitical pressure. We ought to make discreet enquiries before signing any contract. We have to negotiate the contract most sensibly and carefully to get it done until Bangladesh attains the quality to do it herself.
However, the matter is not the concern of a layman. It is rather a matter of expertise to deal properly with it. The first thing Bangladesh should do is to establish a National Institute of Oceanography. India has their National Institute of Oceanography founded in 1966, which has been conducting research and other development programmes in coordination with the littoral countries like Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka, and the countries on the periphery of the Bay of Bengal like Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Maldives. Now Bangladesh should immediately set up an independent institute for the promotion of necessary research and developments in this regard. We can greatly benefit from the example of India and other successful offshore oil-exploring countries.
The process of offshore drilling for extracting oil and gas resources from underground locations may, however, include higher risks of accidents, spills and fires. One of the reasons for this danger is the use of lots of complex equipment, which are strung over a long area terminating at about 20,000 feet or more below the sea floor. Another reason for danger is the harsh offshore environments that cause the drilling equipment many engineering problems. Besides, severe weather, ice, and storms often pose serious threats to the functionality of the rigs. The inexperience of the oil extraction companies adds many other problems to the whole operation. Whatever the risks may be, the game, at the end of the day is worth much more than the candle.
Bangladesh is, however, new to this game. But she can learn the game a great deal by watching the other players. Our research activities should be prosecuted in order to collect information on mineral resources of the deep ocean floor. We should take the most recent and technologically advanced scientific explorations, which have provided insights into the marine geology, geophysics, and resource potentials of the ocean. Our universities can also contribute a great deal to the furtherance of oceanographic and related knowledge. The students should be motivated to study the sea with a view to helping to dig out their own submarine treasure. Our naval force should be strengthened to raise the level of vigilance in the maritime boundaries. Above all, there should be a holistic national policy on the protection and utilization of our maritime resources. If we can put our sea venture to a good use, it will be a dream comes true, or else it's a pipe dream. Therefore, our victory over the sea and our subsequent move towards the blue economy will rest more on making the best use of it than on mere possession. It is a daunting prospect.r
Dr Rashid Askari writes fiction and columns, and teaches English literature at Kushtia Islamic University, Bangladesh.
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