UNESCO has condemned the Australian government’s approval of dumping dredged sand and mud in the waters of the Great Barrier Reef. The UN body warned that if the plan is not revised, the Reef's World Heritage status could be downgraded.
The decision to allow three million cubic meters
of dredge waste to be disposed of in the Barrier Reef was made in
January by an Australian government agency overseeing the area.
The waste comes from the earlier approved expansion of the
country’s port of Abbot Point – to make way for extensive coal
In its first comment on the issue, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) expressed “concern” and “regret” at the decision, which it believes was premature. It was taken before a thorough analysis of the impact it might have on the World Heritage site.
“Indeed, this was approved, despite an indication that less impacting disposal alternatives may exist,’’ UNESCO said on Thursday in a draft report on the reef's World Heritage status to the World Heritage Committee.
The body has urged the government to reconsider the dumping plan and in case it proves to be the least damaging option, submit evidence proving the point.
UNESCO has on the whole noted “serious decline in the condition of the Great Barrier Reef, including in coral recruitment and reef-building across extensive parts of the property."
It expects Australia to come up with a new report on its efforts for preserving the Great Barrier Reef by February 1, 2015. If that one fails to convince the UN body that the country is doing enough in challenging the World Heritage site’s deterioration, the Great Barrier Reef could be placed on an “in Danger” list, the draft report warns.
The UN body’s criticism of the dredge waste dumping plan has been
welcome by environmentalists.
"UNESCO'S concern is shared by thousands of Australians and hundreds of leading scientists, and we call on the federal government to ban dumping of dredge in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage area prior to the World Heritage Committee meeting in June," WWF Australia spokesman, Richard Leck, said in a statement.
Government officials, both federal and those in Queensland (where the controversial port expansion is to take place) have produced optimistic comments on the UNESCO report, saying that they will not allow the downgrading of the Reef.
"I'm very confident that between the work we're doing as a state and the work we're doing with our federal counterparts, we will not see the Reef listed 'in danger'," Queensland's Environment Minister Andrew Powell said, as cited by ABC.
Once implemented, the project for the creation of a multi-billion-dollar coal port near the Great Barrier Reef would allow for yearly exports of 120 million tons of coal.
This has also been a matter of concern for environmentalists, who have criticized the project for doubling shipping traffic in the area.
UNESCO declared the Great Barrier Reef a World Heritage site in 1981. The area, covering some 350,000 square kilometers, is nearly the size of the US state of Montana. It is home to over 2,000 fish species, with new ones being discovered each year. There are also around 4,000 species of coral in the area.