Press Releases October 2006 - Concern Over Oceans Despite Receding Oil & Chemical Threats - United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
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Concern Over Oceans Despite Receding Oil & Chemical Threats

Sewage Discharges to Destruction of Coastal Habitats Top Global Concerns for Oceans and Seas

Good Progress However Scored on Oil and Chemical Pollution Says New UN Environment Report

The Hague, 4 October 2006 – A rising tide of sewage is threatening the health and wealth of far too many of the world’s seas and oceans, a new report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) says.

In many developing countries between 80 per cent and nearly 90 per cent of sewage entering the coastal zones is estimated to be raw and untreated.

The pollution-- linked with rising coastal populations, inadequate treatment infrastructure and waste handling facilities-- is putting at risk human health and wildlife and livelihoods from fisheries to tourism.

There is rising concern too over the increasing damage and destruction of essential and economically important coastal ecosystems like, mangrove forests, coral reefs and seagrass beds.

The problems contrast sharply with oil pollution. Globally, levels of oily wastes discharged from industry and cities has, since the mid 1980s been cut by close to 90 per cent.

Other successes are being scored in cutting marine contamination from toxic persistent organic pollutants like DDT and discharges of radioactive wastes.

The study, called the State of the Marine Environment report, says overall good progress is being made on three of nine key indicators, is mixed for two of them and is heading in the wrong direction for a further four including sewage, marine litter and ‘nutrient’ pollution.

Nutrients, from sources like agriculture and animal wastes, are ‘fertilizing’ coastal zones triggering toxic algal blooms and a rising number of oxygen deficient ‘dead zones’.

Meanwhile, the report flags up fresh areas in need of urgent attention.

These include declining flows in many of the world’s rivers as a result of dams, over-abstraction and global warming; new streams of chemicals; the state of coastal and freshwater wetlands and sea level rise linked with climate change.

Researchers are also calling for improved monitoring and data collection on continents like Africa where the level of hard facts and figures on marine pollution remains fragmented and woefully low.

The report has been compiled by UNEP’s Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-Based Sources (UNEP/GPA).

IGR-2 Beijing

The findings will be given to governments attending an intergovernmental review of the 10 year-old GPA initiative taking place in Beijing, China, from 16-20 October.

Achim Steiner, United Nations Under Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director, said today:” An estimated 80 per cent of marine pollution originates from the land and this could rise significantly by 2050 if, as expected, coastal populations double in just over 40 years time and action to combat pollution is not accelerated”.

He said the GPA was the key initiative, backed by the international community, in order to conserve and reverse declines in the health of the world’s oceans and seas.

Currently more than 60 countries across Continents including Africa, Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean are now part of this global effort.

Many are integrating the GPA into national development strategies and some are working with neighbouring countries to develop integrated coastal zone management.

“But, as the new State of the Marine Environment shows, old problems persist and new ones like nutrient-rich ‘dead zones’ and the impacts of climate change are emerging. So we have a long way to go politically, technically and financially if we are to hand over healthy and productive seas and oceans to the next generation,” said Mr Steiner.

He said the Beijing meeting offered a golden chance for governments and international donors to review their planning and investment strategies to ensure they are genuinely marine-friendly.

The UNEP/GPA was adopted by governments in 1995. It is tasked with assisting governments in combating nine key coastal problems which the new report assesses.

Highlights from the State of the Marine Environment report

The report says good progress has been achieved in three areas:

Persistent Organic Pollutants-these are long-lived industrial chemicals, pesticides or by-products of combustion linked with a wide range of impacts on human health and wildlife.

Some countries brought in bans two decades ago and 12 of these chemicals, including DDT and Polychlorinated Bi-Phenols (PCBs) are now controlled under the 2001 Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants.

In the Baltic Sea there has been a 50 per cent reduction in pollution loads and levels, especially of DDT, and other pesticides are also generally falling in the marine environments of eastern and western South America.

Levels of several key persistent organic pollutants are dropping too in the Northeast Atlantic although some contaminants, like PCBs, continue to be found above European Union limits.

The report points to rivers such as the Seine in France; the Schedlt and the Rhine on the border between Belgium and the Netherlands and the Ems in Germany.

Less sterling progress is being made in the Arctic, where old and new persistent organic pollutants enter the human food chain via fish and seals and in the Western Mediterranean sea.

The Caspian Sea is also highlighted. Here, DDT and a chemical called endosulphan are a “serious cause for concern”.

Concern is also underlined in some parts of South-East Asia and the South Pacific—here levels of some persistent chemicals are high in the river systems and sediments of Malaysia and Thailand.

High concentrations of DDT and its breakdown products are found in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands—the legacy of malarial mosquito control.

Problems are also underlined along the coastlines of Sub-Saharan Africa, including the Indian Ocean where countries are heavily dependent on agriculture, and the seas of East Asia where the chemicals are produced.

Radioactive Substances

In 1993, the disposal of low-level radioactive waste at sea was prohibited under the London Convention.

Authorized releases from nuclear fuel-cycle installations do continue at sites such as Sellafield in the UK; La Hague, France; Trombay, India and Toki-Mura, Japan.

A potential future problem is the decommissioning of the Russian nuclear fleet.

But the report concludes that most contamination is coming from natural radioactive sources and that measures to control human-made contamination are working.


Overall less oil is entering the marine environment now when compared with the mid 1980s with pollution down around two thirds.

“Total oil inputs decreased to 37 per cent of 1985 levels” with spills from tanker accidents down 75 per cent, from tanker operations by 95 per cent and from municipal and industrial discharges by close to 90 per cent.

The report does however note concern in some areas like the Arctic rivers of Russia; the Baltic and the Gulf of Finland and in the Persian Gulf. Asia.

Climate change and the loss of ice is also opening up the North East Passage across the roof of the world to shipping and oil exploration raising the risk of further pollution.

Local pollution is also severe on coasts and around ports in countries like Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Nigeria and Pakistan as a result of spills.

The report notes ‘mixed progress’ in two areas.

Heavy Metals

Controls have been introduced by most developed countries across a wide range of heavy metals.

But new quantities of substance like mercury are entering the marine environment from emerging economies as a result of industrial and mining operations and the burning of fossil fuels for power generation and transportation.

The report highlights concern for human health in the Arctic. In some areas concentrations of mercury are now between two and to four times higher in the bodies of ringed seals and beluga whales than 25 years ago.

Other heavy metals—linked with the deployment of catalytic converters on cars and including platinum and rhodium—are many times higher than they were a few decades ago.

“The environmental and health effect of these metals are not well known,” says the report.

It says that lead, cadmium and mercury inputs into the North Sea have fallen by 70 per cent, although targets for some other substances like copper and tri-butyl tin—used as an anti-fouling coating on boats-- have not been met.

Other areas of progress include the North East Atlantic where concentrations of cadmium, mercury and lead in mussels and fish have fallen over the past decade or so and in the Mediterranean where a similar trend is emerging.

However concern remains in places like the Caspian Sea where an estimated 17 tonnes of mercury and nearly 150 tonnes of cadmium are discharged annually.

In the seas of East Asia, rising amounts of electronic wastes—which can contain up to 1,000 different materials, many of which are toxic—is an increasing problem with as many as nine million batteries dumped annually.

Sediment Mobilization

Movement of sediments and soils are being dramatically altered by dam building, large-scale irrigation, urbanization, loss of forests and land change uses linked with agriculture.

Some coastlines, once fed by regular amounts of sediments by rivers, are shrinking because the soils are being trapped by barrages upstream.

Others are suffering for precisely the opposite reason---artificially high amounts of sediments are now swilling down rivers choking seagrass beds, silting up coral reefs and clogging up other important habitats and coastal ecosystems.

The report points to the Mediterranean where river flows have been reduced by 50 per cent as a result of damming thus cutting sediment flows to the coast.

Soil particle flows in the River Ebro in Spain have fallen by 95 per cent and from the Rhone in southern France by 80 per cent.

In South Asia, some 1.6 billion tones of sediment are now reaching the Indian Ocean via rivers on the Indian sub-Continent.

Total sediment loads in rivers in Bangladesh are 2.5 billion tones of which the Brahamaputra carries 1.7 billion tones and the Ganges 0.8 billion tones.

In the seas of East Asia the levels of silt draining into river basins is three to eight times the global average.

Studies from Indonesia and the Philippines estimate that the environmental damage to coral reefs far exceeds the economic benefits from logging which is triggering the silt.

In the Wider Caribbean, sediment loads are estimated to be one Giga-tone or 12 per cent of the global level with deforestation the main trigger.

The economic impact of reduced loads is starkly underlined on the Nile. The building of the Aswan dam in the 1960s had led to close to 100 per cent of the soils and sediments being trapped behind the dam.

Erosion has occurred at the mouth of the Nile and there have been declines in sardine catches of 95 per cent.

Worse Progress is being registered in four areas:


Over half of the wastewater entering the Mediterranean Sea is untreated.

In Central and Eastern Europe a quarter of the population are connected to some kind of treatment plant but many large cities discharge virtually untreated wastewater.

Around 60 per cent of the wastewater discharged into the Caspian Sea is untreated.

In Latin America and the Caribbean the figure is around 85 per cent.

In East Asia the figure is close to 90 per cent; in the South East Pacific, over 80 per cent and West and Central Africa, 80 per cent.

In West Asia, among countries like Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, “sewage treatment plants exist in all countries, but the level of treatment varies and capacity is not sufficient to deal with existing loads”.

Globally, an estimated $56 billion more is needed annually to address the wastewater problem.

“On balance, it is perhaps the most serious of all the problems within the framework of the GPA. It is also the area where least progress has been achieved,” says the report.


The number of coastal dead zones has doubled every decade since 1960 with the rise linked to nutrients—nitrogen and phosphorus—arising from sources such as agricultural fertilizer run off; manure; sewage and fossil fuel burning.

“Nutrient over-enrichment” can lead to wild and farmed fish kills; degradation of seagrass beds and coral reefs and toxic algal blooms.

Nitrogen exports to the marine environment from rivers are expected to rise globally by 14 per cent by 2030 when compared with the mid 1990s.

The problem was once largely confined to developed countries but is now spreading to developing ones.

Rivers running through Cambodia, China, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam now deliver well over 600,000 tonnes of nitrogen to the waters above the Sunda Shelf.

Toxic algal blooms or ‘red tides’ affected 15,000 square kilometers of offshore waters in China in 2001. Major problems are also now being registered in the estuaries and coastal areas of the Philippines.

Marine Litter

“The problem of marine litter has steadily grown worse, despite national and international efforts to control it,” says the report.

Impacts include threats to human health and wildlife. Litter can harm the aesthetic appearance of beaches and tourist resorts with economic implications.

Sources include municipal, industrial, medial, fishing boats and shipping discharges. Much of the litter is not bio-degradable.

The precise amount of litter is unknown but thought to be rising. Around 70 per cent of marine litter ends up on the seabed, 15 per cent on beaches and a further 15 per cent is floating.

The annual ‘International Coastal Cleanup’ organized by the NGO Ocean Conservancy collected over six million pieces of rubbish weighing 4,000 tonnes in 100 countries in 2001.

An example of costs comes from the west coast of Sweden where municipalities spend over $1.6 million a year cleaning up litter from 3,600 km of coast.

Physical Alteration and Destruction of Habitats

Close to 40 per cent of the world’s population live on just the costal fringe which is just over seven per cent of the land.

Average population density in the coastal zone rose is set to rise from 77 people per square kilometer in 1990 to 115 in 2025.

The growth, in terms of more settlements, overuse of marine resources, pollution and damage and loss of ecosystems, is having serious impacts.

In the North Sea, sand and gravel extraction is an issue. The sea bed can take up to a decade to recover.

The impact of new infrastructure is underlined with a case from Morocco in the Mediterranean. A new harbour and port, built in the 1990s, changed the levels of sediments deposited on local beaches.

As a result Tangier lost over 50 per cent of its international tourist night-stays and local craftsmen lost a quarter of their business.

Close to 90 per cent of coral reefs in South East Asia are threatened by human activity and the region’s mangroves—important for coastal defence and fisheries—are under assault from aquaculture ponds and agriculture.

Close to a third of North America’s wetlands have been lost to urban development with agriculture claiming a further quarter.

Many Caribbean countries have seen a deterioration of their coastal environments as a result of sand mining and the construction of breakwaters and seawalls. The Virgin Islands (USA) have lost half of their mangroves in the past 70 years.

Loss of coastal habitats in Latin America have impacted fisheries. An extreme case is the 90 per cent reduction in coastal fisheries in the Magdalena River delta of Colombia over the last two decades.

Extensive losses of mangroves in Ecuador and Colombia and salt marshes in southern Brazil are reported.

Agricultural and urban development has resulted in an up to 50 per cent loss of wetlands in Southern and Western Africa while around 80 per cent of the Upper Guinea forest has been cleared.

Notes to Editors

For more information on the Inter Governmental Review (IGR-2) in Beijing go to

The State of the Marine Environment and regional reports can also be found at

For More Information Please Contact

Nick Nuttall, UNEP Spokesperson, Office of the Executive Director, on Tel: +254 20 762 3084; Mobile: 254 733 632 755, E-mail:

Robert Bisset, UNEP Spokesperson for Europe on Tel +33 1 4437 7613, Mobile +33-6-2272-5842, email: or Elizabeth Solomon, Information Officer, UNEP/GPA on Tel: 31 (0)70 311 4422, E-mail:

UNEP News Release




Further Resources

Fact Sheets on the State of the Marine Environment in Africa:

Eastern Africa
Southern Africa
West & Central Africa

Fact Sheets on the State of the Marine Environment in Asia:

South Asia
East Asia

Fact Sheets on the state of the Marine Environment is Selected Regions:

Caribbean & SIDS
Black Sea
Red Sea & the Gulf of Aden (ROPME)

State of the Marine Environment and Regional reports
Supporting Documents to the IGR 2

Second Intergovernmental Review Meeting of the GPA (IGR-2)

Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment (UNEP/GPA)

UNEP Regional Seas Programme


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