Thu, Dec 06, 2018 - Page 6 News List

FEATURE: India plans dive for seabed minerals

Thomson Reuters Foundation, CHENNAI, India

In the 1870 Jules Verne classic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, underwater explorer Captain Nemo predicted the mining of the ocean floor’s mineral bounty — zinc, iron, silver and gold.

India is catching up with that only now, as it prepares to unearth treasures down below, aiming to boost its economy.

The floor of the world’s seas is scattered with vast beds of black potato-shaped polymetallic nodules comprising copper, nickel, cobalt, manganese, iron and rare earth elements.

These natural goodies are key to making modern gadgets, from smartphones and laptops to pacemakers, hybrid cars and solar panels.

As expanding technology and infrastructure fuel global demand for these resources — whose supply is dwindling fast onshore — more countries, including manufacturing powerhouses India and China, are eyeing the ocean.

“We have to depend on ocean resources sooner or later... There is no other way,” said Gidugu Ananda Ramadass, head of India’s deep-sea mining project at the National Institute of Ocean Technology in the city of Chennai.

India, Asia’s third-largest economy, is going full steam ahead in anticipation of the International Seabed Authority (ISA) — a UN body that oversees mining on the high seas — giving the green light for commercial exploitation.

However, Nemo appeared to get one thing wrong in asserting that deep-sea minerals “would be quite easy to exploit.”

Over the next decade, the Indian government plans to pump more than US$1 billion into developing and testing deep-sea technologies such as underwater crawling machines, the Indian Ministry of Earth Sciences said.

If it works, the equipment would be able to reach depths of up to 6km, where metals can be 15 times more concentrated than on land.

The ISA allows India to explore an area in the Indian Ocean of 75,000k2, equal to about 2 percent of the country’s size.

Experts say that in the absence of a clear international charter, deep-sea mining operations could cause irreversible damage to a little understood ecology.

Environmentalist Richard Mahapatra fears that players could sound the death knell for Earth’s “final frontier,” which he said has been explored only 0.0001 percent.

The seabed is home to a unique ecology where colonies of organisms and creatures have evolved over millions of years, free of the wild currents, vibrations and noise that mining would bring, said Mahapatra, managing editor of the New Delhi-based science and environment magazine Down To Earth.

According to a study last year by the British National Oceanography Centre, mining experiments at seven sites in the Pacific Ocean showed that the amount and diversity of marine life was reduced “often severely and for a long time.”

Sediment plumes and disturbance caused by mining could wipe out habitats for slow-growing corals and fish, Mahapatra said.

It could also have long-term effects on how the ocean, which absorbs carbon dioxide and heat, regulates the world’s climate.

While the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea already includes regulation of mineral-related activities, environmentalists say that the rules are not good enough.

Mahapatra urged countries to put vested interests aside in agreeing to the new ISA framework, given the damage that humans have already done to the planet’s atmosphere, land and surface water.

“Deep-sea mining will be pure commerce, but there are certain situations where you cannot put profit before people,” he said. “We should not rush it; otherwise, we will head towards another disaster.”

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