Standing on the coastline

The time has come for Myanmar’s government to implement its marine zone management scheme and regulate maritime industries.

AT the opening of the World Ocean Summit 2017 in Bali held by the Economist, the organiser stressed that transforming a conventional economy in the ocean to a sustainable ocean economy presents a tremendous economic and investment opportunity. There are considerable risks and challenges for mismanaging an economy in the ocean.

It is well known that one of Myanmar’s many famous resources is its waters. With the country’s liberalisation gaining momentum, the time has come for the Myanmar government to step up its efforts to manage and regulate its maritime industries and increasing economic activities in its waters.

For those pondering what there is to gain economically from Myanmar’s ocean, the answer is simple. There is marine fishery, which is a lifeline for many coastal communities in the country and which serves as a significant contributor to the country’s export economy. The long coastline, proclaimed by some as having the longest beach line in Southeast Asia, offers holiday and honeymoon-goers a viable alternative to other well-developed but crowded beach resorts.

The national economic powerhouse – the oil and gas sector – is fuelling much of the country’s finance. Seaborne trading, both import and export, is essential for a country which is eager to catch up with its ASEAN neighbours.

Most, if not all of us, will agree that there is still much to do in developing marine infrastructure such as ports, more modern ships and equipments. There are plenty of benefits with an integrated management approach with regard to coastal land use and surrounding waters – i.e. Maritime Spatial Planning, also referred to as water zone management or marine functional zoning. I think there is a good call for this when around 40 percent of the country’s population is living by the coast.

Communities dislike living next to a production factory. The oceans are not that different: noises and disturbances from offshore drilling and large marine vessels are known to disrupt the biological harmony of marine life. Marine industrial activities near the coast may pollute the ocean and downgrade the attractiveness of the beach. Conflict of interests have indeed evidenced themselves in Myanmar – issues of mining sands versus tourists trying to enjoy a nice holiday at some of Myanmar’s famous beaches has been raised before.

The idea of Maritime Spatial Planning is an ecosystem-based management and is in some parts similar to that of land use planning, which covers: 1. an integrated governance on the activities and management of themarine environment, 2. bridging offshore and onshore communities’ marine activities and resource use, 3. including all stakeholders and resolve conflicts over the use of marine resources, 4. conservation of marine ecosystems and 5. more informed investments for marine developers and users of marine resources.

The ASEAN bloc has started to work on its approach. Let’s take the Philippines as an example. While it has a selective zoning of certain sea areas, these are mainly traffic separation schemes, marine-protected areas and areas for coastal tourism which are loosely connected to land-use planning. Their water use zoning scheme was created to resolve frequent conflicts arising from the use of marine resources.

In some countries such as China, water zones have been categorised by identifying the dominant function: port and shipping zones, fishing resource conservation zones, mining zones, tourism and recreation zones, ocean energy utilisation zones, marine protected areas, and so on.

In Myanmar, there are marine traffic and fishing regulations and biodiversity schemes. For example, a similar initiative has been established by the Myanmar government devising a national biodiversity strategy and action plan (NBSAP) – a five-year action plan towards sustainable management of coastal, marine and island ecosystems concerning the conservation of fish species and costal habitats, the bridge that links the stakeholders together to facilitate an integrated management approach is not as clear as it could have been.

We have to take actions to increase Myanmar’s importance on the international arena. With the launching of the Belt and Road initiative by its powerful neighbour, China, and upcoming activities through the expansion and development of special economic zones in collaboration with different countries, the Myanmar government can do more to convince interested parties that Myanmar has a sustainable way to develop its marine resources – how could the country manage a colourful combination of fishing vessels, passenger ferries, giant cargo ships and luxury yachts all sailing on its water with offshore oil and gas platforms sitting in the background?

The implementation of the marine zone management scheme does not necessarily cover the entire Myanmar-oceanic territory, though in areas with key economic interests, implementation almost appears to be an imperative. It is a good initiative to be seized upon by identifying the functional intention of the water zones and to take the first step in attracting foreign investment – with the caveat of prior research and liaison, which may require external assistance and expertise.

The need for upgrading technical capabilities of Myanmar’s marine administration, such as enforcement capabilities, vessel traffic monitoring and communication systems, can be put into better perspective.

In ancient times, the ocean was vast, free and limitless. With the many activities that are offered in Myanmar’s waters, we need to look for a way to share the space sustainably and efficiently.

Derrick Chin Hang Wong MEng, MA Cantab is the director of Wealth Ocean Services and is responsible for the firm’s business development in Myanmar. He also holds a postgraduate diploma in executive maritime management at World Maritime University.