The Foreign Service Institute, with the support of The Asia Foundation, hosted a Mabini Dialogue on the theme “Marine Environment Protection: A Multi-Level Perspective” on 1 February 2017 at the Carlos P. Romulo Library with Dr. Liana Talaue-McManus, Project Manager of the UNEP-GEF (UN Environment Program–Global Environment Facility) Transboundary Waters Assessment Program; Ms. Cheryl Rita Kaur, Head of the Center for Coastal and Marine Environment at the Maritime Institute of Malaysia (MIMA); and Dr. Mark J. Spalding, President of The Ocean Foundation.
In her presentation, Dr. McManus identified climate change as one of the main threats to the marine environment. Climate change happens at the global level, but its effects vary unevenly across regions and countries. In terms of exposure (coastal population), vulnerability (gap in human development), and hazard (deaths and property losses due to climate-related events), Southeast Asia is among the regions with the highest climate risk, and within it, the Philippines figures near the top. Dr. McManus cautioned that the risk is expected to increase as the sea level rises due to carbon emissions. She therefore recommended sustainable development, reduced population growth, increased tertiary-level education for higher resilience, and healthy coastal ecosystems as buffers against coastal erosion and storm surges.
In addition to climate change, unilateral actions to assert claims in the South China Sea, such as land reclamation, also pose direct threats to the marine environment. Moreover, overlapping jurisdictional claims hinder effective regulation of the area. Ms. Kaur therefore proposed to repackage marine environment protection at the regional level as a confidence-building measure. She argued that this would not only mitigate marine environment degradation but also ease tensions and improve mutual trust and understanding among the claimant-states. Cooperation can start with gathering and sharing information, creating a regional database, promoting marine scientific research, and raising public awareness, and can later progress toward joint efforts on marine protected areas, biodiversity conservation, and fisheries management.
Dr. Spalding added that, apart from maritime disputes, many other man-made factors put pressure on the marine environment, such as illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing; illegal wildlife trade; and overdeveloped coastal areas. To address both natural and man-made threats, Dr. Spalding suggested limiting human use of marine ecosystems at the national level, coordinating with other states at the regional and global levels (especially for areas beyond national jurisdiction), and developing multi-level governance systems that recognize the interconnectedness of natural processes in the marine, terrestrial, and atmospheric domains. At the global level, the UN Sustainable Development Goals already urges states to, among others, balance their economic use of marine resources against conservation. Dr. Spalding also mentioned that, with the new Trump administration, the United States might limit its international commitments, possibly including those on marine environment protection. Thus, he called on other states and regions, including ASEAN (and the Philippines as its chair for 2017), to take the lead.