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Oceans, a need of policy and oversight

Oceans, a need of policy and oversight

31 Oct 2023

 The Government this week stated that there are plans afoot to establish a new institution to streamline the survey and cartography of Sri Lanka’s territorial waters and exclusive economic zone (EEZ). 

The new institution comes at a time where Sri Lanka lacks clear policies about the ocean and maritime affairs. The need for a National Oceans Policy for the Sri Lankan marine and maritime sphere, and robust oversight on Oceans-related matters has been a long-felt need.  

The move to create the new institution, is one welcomed by many in the marine and maritime sectors. However, allegedly the move has been resisted by a state entity for some. The National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA), a name which has recently become linked to the controversial Chinese geophysical and seismic scientific research vessel Shi Yan–6, had continuously impeded the creation of the new institution, the Ministry of Justice charged yesterday (31 October). “The NARA has been continuously working to impede this proposal from being tabled. Actually, there is no benefit either for them or the country by doing so…” the Justice Minister said at a press conference.

What exactly NARA does, and what becomes of their research, conducted jointly or otherwise is also largely unknown. There are also concerns about how the data generated from such surveys, like that with Shi Yan–6 remains under a cloud. NARA has stated that the Government of Sri Lanka has ownership of the data generated. However, who else has access to that data, particularly those which are collected collaboratively, remains unexplained.  Some oceanography and marine hydrography specialists that The Daily Morning spoke to hold a poor view of how NARA has been established, staffed, resourced and administered over the years. It is learnt that NARA has a sea going vessel which was given to it for marine research, but the lack of funds to effectively operate the vessel. One marine scientist who spoke to The Daily Morning questioned why NARA could not use the vessel organic to them to routinely test “water column” samples to compile a long-term data base, rather than trying to rely on 48 hours’ worth of data which they can collect from the joint research with Shi Yan–6? Had there been an effective research plan by NARA, and if the Government had placed adequate funds for serious research, would Sri Lanka need to sought assistance from Shi Yan–6 or any other foreign vessel for data collection of coastal “water columns” ? Perhaps NARA can answer!    

According to the Ministry of Justice, the new institution, the National Hydrographic Office, is to be established under the Ministry of Defence with the purpose of streamlining the surveying and cartography of the Sri Lankan maritime territory. The National Hydrographic Bill, which facilitates the establishment of this new institution, is to be tabled in Parliament soon. Commenting on the new institution, the Minister of Justice had stated that the new institution can generate revenue by preparing nautical charts that ships traversing our waters need to purchase for navigation purposes. 

While the motives behind the move may be genuine, there is still the issue of a lack of national policy on ocean and maritime matters, which the policy makers should address in a bipartisan manner. The need for a well discussed policy, which should be implemented by experts is timely due to the lack of affinity to our ocean domain, by Sri Lankans, and our leaders, and bureaucrats. Further, as Sri Lanka has taken over the Chairpersonship of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), it would be wise for Sri Lanka to first get its ship in order, and work with other IORA nations to build a strong regional architecture to ensure, a peaceful and free Indian Ocean, which is open to all for trade and commerce.  


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