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Great Barrier Reef as World Heritage in Danger

  • Category
    Geography
  • Published
    30th Jun, 2021

The UNESCO World Heritage Committee lamented that the Great Barrier Reef of Australia has deteriorated so much that it should be listed as a ‘world heritage site in danger’, which has drawn sharp criticism from Australia.

Context

The UNESCO World Heritage Committee lamented that the Great Barrier Reef of Australia has deteriorated so much that it should be listed as a ‘world heritage site in danger’, which has drawn sharp criticism from Australia.

Background

  • The Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate published in 2019 provides the latest account of what is happening to the reefs around the world.
  • Marine heatwaves have resulted in large-scale coral bleaching events and its frequency has increased over the years.
  • This has caused worldwide reef degradation since 1997.
  • The Great Barrier Reef contributes $4.8 billion annually to Australia's economy and supports 64,000 jobs. But the reef's long-term survival has come into question.
  • It has suffered from three devastating mass bleaching events since 2015, caused by above-average ocean temperatures as the burning of fossil fuels heats up the planet.

Analysis

About Great Barrier Reef

  • The Great Barrier Reef is a site of remarkable variety and beauty on the north-east coast of Australia.
  • It contains the world’s largest collection of coral reefs, with 400 types of coral, 1,500 species of fish and 4,000 types of mollusc, plus a great diversity of sponges, anemones, marine worms, crustaceans, and other species.
  • It also holds great scientific interest as the habitat of species such as the dugong (‘sea cow’) and the large green turtle, which are threatened with extinction
  • No other World Heritage property contains such biodiversity.
  • This diversity, especially the endemic species, means the GBR is of enormous scientific and intrinsic importance, and it also contains a significant number of threatened species.

What are the threats to GBR?

  • Climate Change
    • Rising sea temperatures
      • Rising sea temperatures mean the Reef is at greater risk of heat stress and mass coral bleaching, decreasing the capacity for corals to build skeletons
    • Ocean Acidification
      • The more acidic seawater becomes the less calcium carbonate it can hold. Many marine species, including coral, need calcium carbonate to build their protective shells and exoskeletons.
    • Severe weather events
      • Increased frequency of severe weather events, such as cyclones and record rainfall levels can destroy reef structures and send an influx of freshwater and sediment further out from the coast on to the Reef
    • Coastal Development
      • Agriculture
        • Most land in the Great Barrier Reef catchment is used for grazing, crops, dairy and horticulture, with more than 80 per cent of the catchment supporting some form of agriculture.
      • Mining
        • Historically, extensive small-scale mining operations occurred through much of the Great Barrier Reef catchment.
        • Production of saleable coal in Queensland has more than doubled since the early 1990s and the region is now associated with some of the world’s largest mines and coal ports.
      • Urban and industrial development
        • Urban and industrial development, excluding mining, in the Great Barrier Reef catchment is not extensive; however future economic projections suggest an increase in these types of land uses.
        • Population growth in coastal areas is increasing the demand for infrastructure and services such as roads, water, sewerage and power.
      • Port development
        • Port development has been the major reason for coastal reclamation — infilling areas of ocean, wetlands or other water bodies — along the Great Barrier Reef coast.
        • Port development can also create artificial barriers to freshwater flow, such as bund walls and infrastructure in waterways.
      • Aquaculture
        • Over the past decade there has been little expansion of land-based aquaculture adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef region, however there are no marine-based aquaculture operations within the region at present.
      • Island development
        • Some Great Barrier Reef islands support residential areas and tourism resorts.
      • Crown-Of-Thorns Starfish
        • Crown-of-thorns starfish feed on coral. These spiky marine creatures occur naturally on reefs in the Indo Pacific region, including the Great Barrier Reef.
      • Water Quality
        • Declining marine/coastal water quality, influenced by land-based run-off, is recognised as one of the most significant threats to the long-term health and resilience of the Great Barrier Reef.
        • Increased sedimentation and nutrients can cause higher algal growth, build-up of pollutants in sediments and marine species, and reduced light and smothered corals.

What is World Heritage in danger?

  • The List of World Heritage in Danger is designed to inform the international community of conditions which threaten the very characteristics for which a property was inscribed on the World Heritage List, and to encourage corrective action.
  • Under the 1972 World Heritage Convention, a World Heritage property can be inscribed on the List of World Heritage in Danger by the Committee when it finds that the condition of the property corresponds to at least one of the criteria in either of the two cases described below
  • For cultural properties
    • Ascertained Danger
      • serious deterioration of materials;
      • serious deterioration of structure and/or ornamental features;
    • Potential Danger
      • modification of juridical status of the property diminishing the degree of its protection;
      • lack of conservation policy;
    • For natural properties
      • Ascertained Danger
        • A serious decline in the population of the endangered species or the other species of Outstanding Universal Value for which the property was legally established to protect, either by natural factors such as disease or by human?made factors such as poaching.
        • Severe deterioration of the natural beauty or scientific value of the property, as by human settlement, construction of reservoirs which flood important parts of the property, industrial and agricultural development including use of pesticides and fertilizers, major public works, mining, pollution, logging, firewood collection, etc.
      • Potential Danger
        • a modification of the legal protective status of the area
        • planned resettlement or development projects within the property or so situated that the impacts threaten the property

List of World Heritage in Danger

  • It is designed to inform the international community of conditions that threaten sites listed on the World Heritage List and to encourage corrective action.
  • Under the 1972 World Heritage Convention, a World Heritage property - as defined in Articles 1 and 2 of the Convention.
  • It can be inscribed on the List of World Heritage in Danger by the Committee when it finds that the condition of the property corresponds to at least one of the criteria in either of the two cases of ascertained danger and potential danger.
  • The cultural and Natural sites could be put on the list if they show certain conditions.
  • Inscribing a site on the List of World Heritage in Danger allows the World Heritage Committee to allocate immediate assistance from the World Heritage Fund to the endangered property.
  • Some of the sites listed in the danger list-
    • Iranian City of Bam
    • Bamiyan Valley in Afghanistan

Conclusion

We know that because there have been six major coral reef extinctions in the geologic past where they were basically wiped out. All those have been associated with excessive heat and ocean acidification

In evolutionary history, with each global temperature change Earth has undergone, corals have adapted—but never as quickly as they must today.

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