Reuters, November 16, 2006

Population growth threatens East Asian coasts

By Ben Blanchard

Growing populations and booming economies are threatening fragile coastal areas in East Asia, and the region's coral reefs could face total collapse within 20 years, according to a new United Nations study.

Although millions of people have been lifted out of poverty by economic development over the last 15 years, the impact of rapid growth on the environment has been severe, said the policy brief from the United Nations Environment Programme, a copy of which was seen by Reuters on Monday.

"Growing populations and their migration to coastal areas, dynamic economic growth, and rising global demands for fishery and aquatic products ... have combined to exert tremendous pressure on East Asia's marine environment and coastal resources," it said.

'Coral reefs face total collapse within 20 years'

Fisheries, mangrove swamps, reefs, coastal wetlands and sea grass beds are all threatened, the report said.

"Studies warn that at the current rates of degradation, the region's coral reefs face total collapse within 20 years, while mangroves could be gone within 30 years," it added.

Large areas of mangrove in Indonesia and Vietnam have been removed to make way for shrimp farms or to convert into farmland, the report said.

"Decades of advocacy, political commitments and conservation efforts at the national and regional levels have not prevented the East Asian seas from degrading at an ever-increasing pace."

Some of the main causes of marine pollution in the region are from untreated sewage, and from rubbish and fertilisers - problems also faced around the world, an official said.

'We keep on using more and more plastic'

"Despite international agreements, we keep pumping raw sewage into the sea," Veerle Vandeweerd, coordinator of the UN's Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-Based Activities, told a news conference.

"We keep on using more and more plastic, and at the end of the day it all ends up in the sea, and plastic cannot be degraded so it stays there," she said, speaking on the sidelines of a marine protection conference in Beijing.

In some parts of East Asia, the problem was particularly severe, the report said.

Cambodia has no sewage treatment facilities outside the capital Phnom Penh, and in Indonesia just three percent of urban areas area connected to sewerage systems, it said.

China, the world's most populous country where more than 300-million people live within 100km of a coast, has the capacity to treat less than half its waste water, the report added.

But it also emphasised positive developments, such as China's target to treat more than 70 percent of urban waste water by 2010.

It also said Malaysia should have a sewage treatment system for its entire population of 24-million by 2015.

"Time is of the essence, and the need for joint and collaborative effort among different organisations and stakeholder groups at the country and regional levels has never been so apparent," the report added.

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