5 Reasons Why a Healthy Ocean is Linked to Human Rights

Photo-illustration: Unsplash (Manuel Sardo)

We live on a blue planet, with oceans and seas covering more than 70 percent of the Earth’s surface. Oceans feed us, regulate our climate, and generate most of the oxygen we breathe.

But growing threats such as marine pollution, sea-level rising and over-fishing damage these aspects of our lives and infringe on the human rights attached to them. United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) research shows, for example, that plastic pollution leakage into aquatic ecosystems has risen sharply in recent years and is projected to more than double by 2030.

In October 2021, the UN Human Rights Council recognized for the first time that a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment is a human right – a landmark move in the fight against the triple planetary crisis of climate change, nature and biodiversity loss and pollution and waste.

On this 10 December observance of Human Rights Day, the head of UNEP’s Marine and Freshwater branch, Leticia Carvalho, outlines five reasons why a clean and healthy ocean is important for realizing human rights obligations relating to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment.

1. The ocean is our life support system

One-third of the total human population, nearly 2.4 billion people, live within 100 km (60 miles) of an oceanic coast – and all human life is dependent upon the oxygen and freshwater it creates.

Many societies–but not all–are able to take access to water, for drinking, sanitation and irrigation, for granted. In 2010, the UN enshrined water as a human right. Without our ocean to power the planet’s water cycle, and create fresh breathable air, we would not exist at all.

2. The ocean provides food, jobs and livelihoods

Photo-illustration: Pixabay

The annual economic value of the ocean is estimated at USD 2.5 trillion, equivalent to the world’s 7th largest economy. It provides nutrition, medicines, and mineral and renewable energy resources. It supports jobs in fishing, seafood, leisure and science. Our ocean is the original “super-highway,” that links economies together and transports goods and people all around the globe.

3. The ocean helps fight the climate crisis

The ocean moderates the climate and influences our weather. Since the start of the industrial period, it has stored more than 90 percent of the heat from human-caused climate change and one-third of the world’s carbon emissions. Vital ecosystems such as mangroves, seagrasses and salt marshes could help us store more than 1.4bn tons of carbon emissions a year by 2050 if they are protected and restored.

4. The ocean is home to vast biodiversity

According to the Convention on Biological Diversity, deep-seabed habitats alone host between 500,000 and 10 million species. But it is hard to know for sure, as some 80 percent of the ocean remains unexplored and 91 percent of marine species remain undescribed. What we do know is that we are continually making new discoveries.

In 2020, scientists discovered a detached 500-meter coral skyscraper, taller than the Empire State Building, off Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Precious and vulnerable coral reef ecosystems occupy less than 1 percent of the ocean floor yet are home to at least 25 percent of marine life. The ocean is home to vast mysteries, from the largest animal on the planet to microscopic organisms, which make up 98 percent of the ocean’s biomass. These microbes are essential to the food chain, the production of nutrients for land and sea, and the health of all animals and humans. In this Decade of Ocean Science, it is time to prioritize understanding and care for our ocean so that it can care for us.

5. The ocean provides wellbeing benefits to all humanity

Most cultures on Earth have celebrated, valued, and sometimes feared the ocean. It has provided myths and legends, and inspiration for art, music and games. For example, UNEP is working with the videogame industry to raise ocean awareness.

In our leisure time, many of us enjoy beaches and activities such as swimming, surfing, sailing and diving, or simply the peace of mind that comes from being near water. The UN’s Happiness Day recognizes happiness as a fundamental human goal. Like the rights to water, health, livelihoods and a clean environment, the ocean has a fundamental role to play.

Source: UNEP