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Neither the Federal nor the Queensland Governments are doing what’s required to save the Great Barrier Reef. AAP Image/Greenpeace, Dean Sewell

Grief of Great Barrier Reef: UNESCO should declare heritage site in danger

The Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area is clearly in danger. But will UNESCO bite the bullet and officially declare it so?

UNESCO acknowledges that the property is iconic. It is the world’s largest coral reef ecosystem. Its size, beauty, composition and biodiversity remain exceptional. But alarm bells rang at UNESCO when it found out it hadn’t been told three LNG plants were being constructed or planned on Curtis Island in the World Heritage Area.

A Mission of the World Heritage Committee visited last year and encountered a Gladstone Harbour in a parlous state, with 45 coastal development proposals in the pipeline.

Moreover, key water quality programs were not in place beyond 2013; coincidentally, the Reef was suffering calamitous floods and a cataclysmic plague of crown of thorns starfish.

The Australian Government was told to respond by February 1, 2013 to a series of demands about progress in, and plans for, managing the property.

The Commonwealth’s recent response does not seem to fully appreciate the true state of the reef. The Executive Summary is little more than a self-congratulatory and political statement for the benefit of domestic readers. The greatest advance made by the Commonwealth – the increase in no-take zones in the Reef from 4% to 33% in 2004 – happened almost nine years ago. It also makes bold statements of doubtful veracity, such as, “The management and protection of the GBR continues to be an ongoing priority for the Australian and Queensland governments.” The state of the reef suggests otherwise.

The government also says, “The declaration of a Coral Sea marine reserve offers substantial additional protection for the integrity of the GBRWHA.” The protection offered by the Coral Sea Reserve is in fact minimal.

Repetitive plagues of crown of thorns starfish on the Great Barrier Reef reflect the failure to control land-based pollution. WWF

Water quality problems

According to the government’s statement, “Both the Australian and Queensland governments have committed to continuing efforts to ensure the quality of water entering the reef from adjacent catchments has no detrimental effect on the health and resilience of the GBR.” It needs to be explained why and how these “continuing efforts” have fallen short.

Almost 20 years ago a water quality target was adopted in a 25-year Strategic Plan for the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. A 25-year objective (by 2020) was “to reduce human-caused inputs into the World Heritage Area of silt, nutrients, toxic pesticides, herbicides and other toxic pollutants to as close to zero as possible”. As a consequence the key agricultural industries stakeholder walked away from the plan.

While the Australian and Queensland governments did embrace the plan and the target for pollution reduction, any serious action had to wait for 14 years, when the Reef Rescue initiative commenced. By this time the situation was much worse. The legacy of this vacillation includes total catchment loads five to nine times the natural loads for total suspended solids, nitrogen and phosphorus.

Diffuse source sedimentation and chemical deposition in the lagoon of the GBR, originating from grazing and farming properties, was always going to be difficult to manage. And the intransigence of the sector must have sent signals about how difficult controlling runoff was going to be politically. Governments ended up relying on voluntary programs rather than making the polluter pay.

In the last three years the unprecedented series of flood events has extended the reach of sediments and chemicals out on the coral. These will have set back some weak favourable trends in pollution loads.

Recent pictures taken from the International Space Station show rivers in flood depositing sediment into the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. Chris Hadfield @Cmdr_Hadfield

Lack of strategy and targets

The reef has been assailed to such a degree that it now has only 14% coral cover – half what is was 27 years ago. And it continues to be severely threatened. As such it will hardly be able to resist its biggest challenges – dealing with rising sea water temperature and associated acidification.

It is instructive to analyse further the responses of the Commonwealth to UNESCO.

The Commonwealth says “Australia is … building on the strong record of management of the property and continuing a long legacy of adaptive management and good stewardship.” This statement, unwittingly, goes to the heart of the problem.

Adaptive management of the reef does indeed have a long, but disastrous, legacy. The point is that tackling water quality and coastal development threats requires more sophisticated management than simply waiting for things to go bad before acting. These threats must be addressed by strategies that adopt the precautionary principle, with targets set and met, taking account of cumulative impacts.

But as UNESCO’s demands reveal, there has been no strategy, nor meaningful targets. (UNESCO itself had stipulated the target for ports – no new ones are to be developed.)

Moreover, cumulative impact assessments are conspicuous by their absence. (Trumpeted by the Commonwealth is a recent environmental impact assessment (EIS) done voluntarily by the proponents, that is cumulative; but its scope is confined simply to Abbot Point port developments.)

Economic benefits, but for whom?

Environmental impact statements are noted for their rich analysis of the economic benefits of development proposals. In contrast, that of economic impacts on stakeholders is often pathetic. It is not surprising that the narrowness is noted by UNESCO. It says “This assessment should consider in detail … the social and economic costs and benefits and lead to a clear indication of the net benefit of the development to the values and integrity of the property.”

In the face of this strong hint, the Commonwealth responded blandly “In deciding whether to approve an action, and what conditions to attach to an approval, under section 136 1 (b) of the EPBC Act the Australian Government environment minister must consider, amongst other things, economic and social matters.” It did also offer that “any unavoidable residual impacts are offset in a way that promotes a net benefit overall”. However, in practice the benefits of damage offsets have been problematic and their practicality questionable, as noted by UNESCO.

Strategy development in grave doubt

One of the demands of UNESCO was that the Commonwealth “undertakes an independent review of the management arrangements for Gladstone Harbour that will result in the optimization of port development and operation in Gladstone Harbour and on Curtis Island, consistent with the highest internationally recognized standards for best practice commensurate with iconic World Heritage status”.

Queensland has management responsibility over the harbour. It thus holds all the cards but refused to deal a hand to the Commonwealth. This has set back the review by seven months.

UNESCO will have noted Queensland’s policy to ramp up coastal development along with the state’s refusal to cooperate with the Commonwealth on the harbour management review. These are both strong signs that progress will be difficult.

The reef is dying a death by pollution and a thousand cuts. Nor is the prognosis good. Governments’ responses to threats have proved inadequate and coastal development is rampant. If the strategic assessment is to resurrect and strengthen the Outstanding Universal Values of the property it will require commitment and close cooperation by governments. That these preconditions are absent is clear from the recent stand-off between Queensland and the Commonwealth over the Gladstone Harbour review.

The reef is in danger. It would not be surprising if it is officially listed as such. This would diminish Australia’s standing in the world as an environmental steward; and the negative impact on the tourism industry and the Queensland economy could be long-lasting.

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