WALVIS BAY - More than 350 researchers, scientists and experts from all over the world have called for a moratorium on ocean or seabed mining.
Seabed mining is a growing industrial field that involves extracting submerged minerals, including phosphate and deposits from the seafloor. To date,
mining for sand, tin and diamonds has been generally limited to shallow coastal waters.
However, the world, including Namibia, is currently looking at phosphate mining, although the fishing industry is strongly opposing the idea, saying there is no proof that it can co-exist with one of the country’s biggest employment creating industries. The team, representing 44 countries, last week Thursday called for a pause on deep-sea mining to allow more research into the unknown implications of it on the climate, biodiversity, and people.
The International Seabed Authority (ISA) is expected to soon adopt regulations that would allow deep-sea mining to begin in the high seas. The leading ocean experts issued a statement on Thursday arguing that far too little is known about these sensitive and important ocean ecosystems, which are already under
stress from climate change, bottom trawling, and pollution, as well as potential impacts of mining. According to Douglas McCauley, a professor at the University of California, there are many alternate viable pathways that would allow business to function without ever needing to start mining the deep ocean.
Ironically, the call came just a day after Windhoek High Court Judge Harald Geier issued an order declaring that Namibian Marine Phosphate (NMP), who plans to mine phosphate in Namibia’s seabed, is not in possession of a valid environmental clearance certificate and is, therefore, not entitled to undertake mining activities.
In fact, the Namibian government at one point in 2013 also banned phosphate mining after Cabinet ordered an 18-month moratorium until an environmental impact study has shown that mining will not destroy the fishing industry. Geier’s judgement follows an application by the Confederation of Namibian Fishing Associations (CNFA), the Namibian Hake Association (NHA), Midwater Trawling Association (MTA) and Omualu Fishing, opposing phosphate mining in the country.
The parties brought an application last year to the High Court for a declaration that the licence issued to NMP in 2011 lapsed. However, NMP’s mining licence ML170 and the rights conferred thereunder are not affected by the findings of the court and remains valid. The applicants claimed that NMP had not complied with the applicable mineral licence conditions in terms of which it had to submit an environmental impact assessment and an environmental management plan report within six months from the date of issue of its mining licence when it submitted a “draft report” in this regard on the last day of the prescribed six-month period and a “final one” outside the time window created by the applicable condition.
NMP is jointly owned by Namibian Knowledge Katti and Omani businessman Tariq Al Barwani. No Namibian scientist or concerned party, despite the outcry against sea-bed mining is part of the 350 signatories representing countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Trinidad and Tobago, Germany, Sweden, Portugal, Russia, France, Saudia Arabia, Japan, Norway, Australia, and Canada.
However, Chris Brown, CEO of the Namibian Chamber of Environment, in a recorded interview, posted on the website of the Chamber of Mines of Namibia, explained that the proposed phosphate mining area to be dredged per year is about three-square kilometres, which he stated is equivalent to 0.00003% of Namibia’s seabed in the country’s exclusive economic zone.
“The proposed marine phosphate mining off the Namibian coast will have a minute impact on the seafloor bed and there is no reason the fishing sector and the mining sector cannot co-exist. In addition, the area where phosphate deposits occur does not coincide with any key commercial fishing in the area and the proposed seabed mining does not pose a threat to endangered or unique biodiversity in the area.”
This, said Brown, is such a small footprint that it would have virtually no impact on the country’s lucrative fishing sector. The Namibian environmentalist further noted that experience drawn from years of marine diamond mining has shown the seabed recovers relatively quickly and much faster than terrestrial mining activities.
Said Brown: “In open areas with high energy, within eight to 10 years or even less, you can’t tell the difference between sediments and their biodiversity where there has been mining, compared to adjacent areas where there hasn’t been any mining.”
“A healthy, functioning ocean is vital for human wellbeing and the planet and that the decision about whether to start mining the deep sea should only be made after a better understanding of what is at stake,” McCauley said in the statement.
He added that the International Seabed Authority (ISA) is expected to adopt regulations that would allow deep-sea mining to begin in the high seas - an area of international jurisdiction where all countries and people have a responsibility and claim over biodiversity and resource management.
“In anticipation of this announcement, companies are wrangling to secure a foothold in the emerging industry, with some already testing their mining machines on the seabed,” he explains in the statement.
Hence, he said the scientists signing the statement argue that it is too soon to move from exploration to exploitation of the seabed and that “sufficient and robust scientific information” needs to be collected before governments can decide about whether to open an entirely new frontier of the ocean to large-scale industrial resource exploitation.
“Over 300 scientists have spoken: Pausing deep-sea mining now will prevent untold damage to ocean wildlife, economies and people,” McCauley said. Meanwhile, NMP, in a statement released on Friday, said their mining licence ML170 and rights conferred thereunder are not affected by the findings of the court and remains valid.
“NMP thus is in agreement that the ruling that the listed activity as defined in the Environmental Management Act may only
be undertaken once a necessary environmental clearance certificate has been obtained,” the statement reads.
The company also indicated that they are pleased with the judgement and now look forward to developing what is an extremely promising project for Namibia.