Dear Southeast Asian nations: Dive deep into marine preservation

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A coral reef in Ko Tao, Thailand.

Our SDGs Letter Project is a call to action. Over a year ago, the United Nations adopted the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which collectively represent millions of dreams and aspirations. GreenBiz, in partnership with the Yale Center for Business and the Environment, is publishing 17 letters by Yale University students that highlight the ideas of youth regarding the 2030 developmental agenda. This series seeks to drive forward the collective will to translate the SDGs into reality.

Dear Secretariat of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN),

A friend recently told me about Ko Tao, a scuba diver’s dream of an island in Thailand where scuba enthusiasts from all over the world converge to spend morning to night submerged in a vast underwater wonderland of coral and fish, and then fill their remaining waking hours discussing dive sites and marine sights. This went on my list of future vacation spots — an ever-growing list of (mostly) dive sites in Southeast Asia that I wonder if I ever actually will see.

As an avid diver, I frequently worry about the coral reefs that could disappear over the next century from warming oceans, pollution, overfishing and other related threats. As I selfishly wonder how much time I have left to visit these places, communities and businesses wonder how much time they have left to continue to have them to support their livelihoods and local economies. Nowhere in the world is this dynamic between the oceans, tourism and livelihoods more connected or more understood than in Southeast Asia.

The world is entering the second year of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), meaning the second year of having an international development aim entirely devoted to our oceans — SDG 14, Life Below Water. This is a goal that recognizes the individual importance that our oceans have for people. In Southeast Asia alone, a region made up coastlines and islands, the surrounding seas house some of the most valuable marine ecosystems in the world and directly provide livelihoods and subsistence for at least 130 million people.

Yet while it has been graced by its own category, Life Below Water should not be boxed apart from other categories of sustainability. What other divers and I have felt being submerged below water is an overwhelming sense of connection, something core to ASEAN’s existence and core to dealing with the issues that face our marine places. As ASEAN celebrates 50 years of regional connection, it will be vital for the association to keep in mind its inextricable link to its marine areas in order to realistically achieve long-term sustainable development.

Integrating marine issues

It is well recognized that the sustainable development goals work as a system of interrelated parts, and Life Below Water touches upon them all in Southeast Asia. From ensuring peace and cooperation in international waters for fishery and natural resource management to supporting a healthy marine environment that can continue to provide food and jobs for local communities and businesses, this is a theme that needs to be part of the conversation for any discussions on achieving sustainable development in the region.

As ASEAN considers its next environmental programs and business action plans, it will serve the region to consider how marine issues integrate with the other 16 sustainable development goals and how those goals can be achieved with solutions that systematically address issues.

Regional and economic cooperation

Threats are cross-boundary issues that depend on regional cooperation and multilateral solutions for long-term success. For example, illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing operations are able to move, sometimes even across the world, and adjust towards individual national policies. It is the duty of ASEAN as a community to continue to move forward regional policies and initiatives, such as a Catch Documentation Scheme to address IUU fishing, that will replenish and preserve its marine resources across the region into the future.

The integration of marine life into initiatives across the board also can provide an avenue for bringing together the stakeholders that depend on a healthy marine environment from communities to private business enterprises, especially micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs), a large and growing part of the ASEAN economy.

ASEAN should continue to reach out to entities in its planning to discuss the impacts marine issues have on them and the economic opportunities that exist for addressing those problems. Through continued and augmented engagement with communities, private industry and MSMEs, the region can be better informed to spur new initiatives and serve current ones, such as marine-protected area financing systems that struggle with long-term financing, or bettering tourism practices such as those outlined in the U.N.'s International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development.

International leadership

ASEAN is in an opportune position to be an international leader on solutions that address not only climate change already affecting the area, but also other issues threatening the long-term use of marine resources that are so integral to region’s economy. From thoughtful urban planning that will prevent flood risks to future sea level rise to the expansion of marine-protected areas, each country in the area and the association can set marine-integrated standards and plans that will serve as an example for the international community.

As nations covered in at-risk coastlines and tied to the oceans through trade, it’s important for ASEAN to remain vigilant in the international community towards addressing and preventing continued climate change. The region would do well to continue to lead and push other nations in their commitments to the Nationally Determined Contributions, and finding innovative solutions will translate to lasting development in the face of climate change.

Divers such as myself are not the only people linked to life below water. People in every part of Southeast Asia are tied to their marine areas, so a sustainably developed future is dependent on marine health. Congratulations, ASEAN, on 50 years of regional cooperation, and here’s hoping that in the next 50 years, life below water will move to the top of the agenda as you work on a sustainable future for Southeast Asia.

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