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Fostering our blue economy

/ 05:30 AM November 30, 2018

The Philippines is four-fifths water and one-fifth land, if one includes our exclusive economic zone as defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. This is due to our archipelagic nature, with our 7,641 islands as of last official count by the National Mapping and Resource Information Authority. This attribute is shared by another Asean neighbor, Indonesia, which has more than twice as many islands, at 17,508. It’s probably no coincidence that the Philippines and Indonesia have been the weakest economies among the five original Asean members.

Still, being archipelagic need not imply being a weak economy. Japan is similarly an archipelago of 6,852 islands, not much less than ours, yet is a far richer economy than both Indonesia and the Philippines. This past week, I got a good idea why. The four-day East Asian Seas Congress 2018 held in Iloilo City ends today, and Japanese delegates’ sharing of their many good practices fostering the “blue economy”—the economy defined by coastal and marine resources—brought many useful insights and lessons. Japan appears to be a country that takes its blue economy and its archipelagic nature much more deliberately and thoughtfully than similarly situated countries, including ours.

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Since my days as the country’s chief economic planner in the 1990s, I have challenged ourselves to take a more archipelagic view of overall development planning, given a traditional tendency for a dominantly land-based planning perspective. It’s not hard to see that a country split up into numerous islands requires a different approach to development than one with a largely contiguous land area, like, say, Thailand. Most obviously, the cost and efficiency of internal transport can vary much more widely, with much greater need than others for interisland versus land transport.

The scope for economies of scale in providing energy infrastructure, particularly electric power, is more limited with a fragmented geography. The communication network would likewise be more expensive and probably less efficient in an archipelagic setting (although this should be no excuse for our inferior facilities therein). And because opportunities for direct people-to-people contacts are constrained by geography, building a sense of nationhood, especially through political and cultural unity, is a much greater challenge than in a country where land is contiguous.

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But being archipelagic has its upsides as well. The seas in between our islands and off our coasts are immensely rich in natural resources and economic value. These arise not only from the value of the fishery and other marine resources they contain, but also from other potential economic activities these can support, including tourism and tidal energy. It’s quite likely that a square kilometer of sea contains higher potential economic value than a corresponding square kilometer of undeveloped land.

The challenge lies in harnessing the economic value of the seas in a sustainable way — that is, without depleting marine resources or destroying marine habitats through pollution or outright destruction (like through dynamite fishing). For example, someone questioned whether past land reclamation activities may have compromised more than what has been gained from creating new land-based facilities and economic activities for the shorter term.

In the East Asian seas—the object of this week’s international conference hosted by Iloilo—there are four common concerns:

(1) unsustainable exploitation of marine living resources; (2) degradation of mangroves, beach forests, seagrass and coral reefs;

(3) pollution from plastics, sewage and marine debris; and (4) climate change leading to sea level rise and coastal erosion. The key to addressing these lies in the name of the 24-year-old organization that spearheads this triennial gathering: Partnerships in Environmental Management for the Seas of East Asia.

Indeed, it takes active partnerships across national and local governments, private business, civil society organizations and local communities to ensure that we all attain a blue economy that sustains life, rather than a brown one that kills it.

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