Maritime governance is the key, however, the challenges and opportunities in the Indo-Pacific strategic space are extremely unique. The 20th century template cannot be mapped on to the 21st century challenges and opportunities.


The first report of the World Economic Forum’s New Nature Economy Report (NNER) series, titled “Nature Risk Rising”, highlighted that $44 trillion of economic value generation that accounts for over half the world’s total GDP is potentially at risk. The dependence of businesses on nature and its services has caused biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse, resulting in one of the top five threats to humanity, in the next ten years as highlighted in the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Risks Report. Human race will continuously strive towards higher economic gains, however, the balance between the equitable distribution of wealth and sustainable development will always remain a question mark. Communities with their traditional ways, that have been in harmony with the local ecosystem is under severe threat due to pressures of the so called western model of development. Harmony between people, economy and nature is the key to effective governance and sustainable development.
Recent global events like the pandemic, the Ukraine crisis and more, point to a massive imbalance and urgent measures are called for. The western model is questionable and needs to be reviewed. The concept of globalisation is under strain and inclusiveness is not being recognized as a virtue in new global order. Unlike the 20th century, the entire strategic power play has now shifted to the Indo-Pacific region and it is important to note that strategic engagements are now taking place in the tropical littoral waters. Maritime governance is the key, however, the challenges and opportunities in the Indo-Pacific strategic space are extremely unique. The 20th century template cannot be mapped on to the 21st century challenges and opportunities. The people, economy and nature construct needs to be reviewed and restructured.
To start with the people aspect, let’s talk about the demography and the uniqueness of the communities that live in the Indo-Pacific region. More than 60% of the global population lives in the region and also the biggest migrant population globally comes from this region. 40% of the international migrant population globally originates from this region and also the internal, rural to urban migration is extremely high. It is well known that demography offers the narrative on future challenges and also if the demography is managed well, it could offer huge opportunities as well. Migration is extremely detrimental to preserving the diversity of culture and livelihood practices. Diversity of people brings richness, by retaining the biodiversity of the ecosystem. Traditional knowledge is critical to ensure sustainable development. Science and technology should only enable scaling up of the traditional practices to match the demand and supply requirements.
Fisheries are a very critical example of understanding the impact on communities and traditional practices. Fishing has always remained with the unorganized sector and largely artisanal practices. The mechanized trawling that is growing in recent times has ensured significant by-catch resulting in massive ecosystem degradation. The illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing is a major cause of concern for any attempt at managing the fisheries sector. On one end, research study reports that the fish stock globally is on the decline since 1996, and on the other side we have massive by-catch (of the order of 80%) being reported from large parts of the Indo-Pacific region. The plastic pollution in the oceans is largely (over 50%) due to the abandoned fishing nets, contrary to the reported cause of single use plastics. The Indo-Pacific region also reports certain areas, where fishes are dying of old age and on the other end there are areas that are overfished, causing serious sustainability concerns. Shrimp farming is another lucrative opportunity in the tropical littoral waters of the Indo-Pacific, however, the small local fishermen are unable to manage the vagaries of climate change and ecosystem degradation. The financial institutions are not willing to provide support to such communities due to the high risk of their outcomes. Coastal communities are under serious threat of losing their livelihoods and of also being overrun by the corporates, engaged in brazen mechanised trawling and large scale industrial activities.
The economy aspect is also equally critical to ensure strategic autonomy of the communities and the local governments to manage their affairs, in the best interest of the people and the nature. Practices and interactions have to be economically viable from a long-term perspective. This requires policy and technology interventions along with capacity and capability building to ensure a nuanced way forward. Economic viability requires pooling of resources and synergizing of efforts, given the developing nations in the region. The extra-regional powers are meddling with the domestic politics of the region to ensure strategic dependence. Indigenous R&D effort with site specific local field experimental validation is extremely critical to ensure strategic autonomy. Extra-regional powers are pushing western hardware with minimal applicability in the tropical littoral waters and at a very high cost, making our projects economically unviable. The fragmented approach across stakeholders within and across the region is a serious limitation. The Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) is another important benchmark to ensure enhanced participation by the local communities in the political process and bringing more focus to the traditional practices and sustainable development.
Nature becomes the biggest loser in this and pays the highest price for development in the developing world. Corporates extract their profit margins by exploiting the resources of nature and particularly in the developing world, where the regulatory provisions are not mature enough, it is a free run for these corporates. The extra-regional powers also exploit these regions geopolitically, by using proxies to further their economic and political agenda. The industrial practices and security measures backed by the West are, by and large, outdated technologies with serious environmental impacts. Their own national provisions do not allow such practices and they export them to the developing world at a high cost.
The Underwater Domain Awareness (UDA) framework proposed by the Maritime Research Centre (MRC), Pune empowers the people on the ground to participate in the economic growth story with minimal impact on the nature. The enhanced situational awareness will allow us to navigate the sustainable development goals. Use of technology to generate real time UDA is a unique and optimal way forward. The Digital Ocean construct brings far more transparency into the Underwater Domain and allows effective governance.

Figure 2: The people, economy and nature interaction model based on the UDA framework.

The spatio-temporal low frequency ambient noise map generated from the Automatic Identification (AIS) data is a unique data driven tool to monitor the underwater noise due to shipping. This allows a real time monitoring of the Acoustic Habitat Degradation of the marine and the freshwater systems. Further the low frequency ambient noise also determines the Signal to Noise Ratio (SNR) and thus defines the performance of the low frequency sonars deployed for any kind of surveillance. The effective deployment of high value military assets like submarines is also based on the SNR in the region. Thus, a single tool can provide significant UDA for multiple applications across stakeholders. The AIS data and the underwater environmental parameters are available online now and can be processed for such high value applications. It can be further extrapolated for much higher frequencies and multiple other applications. Figure 1 presents the spatio-temporal map generated for underwater noise. Similar maps can be generated for multiple other applications for enhanced management of the underwater domain.
The species specific digital tool for monitoring underwater conditions is another example of Digital Ocean construct driven by the UDA framework. Shrimp farming and seaweed farming can be effectively monitored and operationally managed using such real time data driven tools. The unique tools bring two specific species that are on two opposite ends of the sustainability spectrum under one platform. The real time appreciation of the underwater conditions and their extrapolation to the species health and growth have numerous applications. Such tools will bring policy and technology intervention inputs along with being a confidence building measure for financial institutions and start-up ecosystem to indulge in such community level activities.
These are just a few examples to sensitize on the value of the Digital Ocean construct driven by the UDA framework. An institutionalized approach is required and we need to build a national, regional and global initiative to balance the people, economy and nature interactions. An inclusive approach that is able to address the concerns of the communities and the stakeholders simultaneously is extremely critical. Socio-political, socio-economic and socio-cultural harmony is required. Figure 2 summarizes the broad people, economy and nature interaction in a comprehensive manner as discussed in this article. Though not easy, an outreach, engage and sustain approach will be the key. India today is looking up in a very different way. We probably have all the spices and the raw materials for the great dish and the UDA framework could be the required recipe to churn the new India we desire. Figure-1 gives a broad connect between the people, economy and nature construct to the UDA framework proposed by the MRC.

Dr (Cdr) Arnab Das is Founder & Director, Maritime Research Center (MRC), Pune.