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India’s Deep Ocean Mission 2021: a boon to the Energy transition or a bane to the environment?

The Government of India has recently announced in the Rajya Sabha that India’s Deep Ocean Mission (DOM) will be provided a corpus of Rs. 4077 crores for the next 5 years to drive its implementation, beginning from 2021.

India has a vast coastline and a greater access to its continental shelf and registered Exclusive Economic waters under United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Why not access it to fuel its development and drive away its vulnerabilities?

A staggering 75,000 square kilometers has been allotted under India’s name in the Central Indian Ocean Basin (CIOB) by UN International Sea Bed Authority. This has a shining potential for exploration of poly-metallic nodules.

This has been the area that India admitted to retain while surrendering another 50% of the seabed to ISA under its 2002 contract.

CIOB extends from 0-25 degrees S latitudes and 70-90 degrees E longitudes and is supposed to be developed by the Ganges’ turbid currents, distributing the sediments to far south.

It is even estimated that even a mere 10% of trapping out of this large reserve can drive the energy demand of India (that is constantly rising) for the next 100 years to come.

Deep Ocean Mission is a multi-ministerial and multi-disciplinary exploratory and research-oriented programme with an emphasis on the development of deep-sea technology, with Ministry of Earth Sciences as its nodal agency.

Its six core components include prospects of deep-sea mining, providing the ocean climate change advisory services, testing underwater vehicles and underwater robotics etc.

The main attraction of the scheme remains to develop a manned submersible that can carry 3 people to 6000 meters deep in the heart of ocean guided and controlled with a suit of scientific sensors and tools.

Centre specifies: “Exploration studies of minerals will pave the way for commercial exploitation in the near future, as and when commercial exploitation code is evolved by the International Seabed Authority”.

For mining the polymetallic nodules(PMN) available at some of the earlier inaccessible depths of central Indian Ocean, the government has constituted an Integrated Mining System to facilitate prospection and collection of these valuable nodules.

PMNs have the following minerals of economic as well as strategic importance: manganese, iron, nickel, copper, cobalt, lead, molybdenum, cadmium, vanadium, titanium, nickel, cobalt and copper.

Ocean Climate Change Advisory Services will also be developed under the scheme to assess several alterations of oceanic climate and ecosystems caused by human intervention and climate change. Ocean temperatures are also rising fast since last few decades.

Study and advanced research on deep ocean biodiversity like flora and fauna including the microbes can be undertaken as added advantages of the mission and also uncover ways to sustainably use them.

The scheme also encompasses a mechanism to identify the deep potential sources of hydrothermal minerals which could become sources of precious coming out of the Earth’s crust through the ridges formed in the Indian ocean.

A detailed engineering design for exploiting offshore Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC) to power the nearby desalination plants has been drafted.

Challenges involved with Sea-bed Mining:

As per the estimates from the Ministry of Earth Sciences, the PMN resource potential in the area is around 380 million tonnes (MT): containing 4.7 MT of nickel, 0.55 MT of cobalt, 4.29 MT of copper and 92.59 MT of manganese.

The ‘First Generation Mine-site’ is narrowed to around 18,000 sq km after further deepened studies.

But ISA declares it to be commercially viable only in case three million tonnes of PMNs will be mined per year.

Even the Centre has noted that the “technologies required for deep sea mining have strategic implications and are not commercially available”, means it requires a better collaboration with private exploration firms and concerned Institutes.

The focus will be the “design, development and fabrication of specialized equipment, ships and setting up of required infrastructure” to accomplish the tasks in tandem.

Deep Ocean Mining can spur growth but can increased Human Interference destroy serene Oceanic Ecosystems?

According to IUCN, Deep-seabed habitats host between 500,000 to 10 million unique species those have adapted well to the difficult conditions such as poor oxygen, scant sunlight, high pressure and extremely low temperatures.

The Deep Sea also plays an undeniable role in climate change mitigation through facilitating the biogeochemical cycles and carbon sequestration.

Ocean contributes by storing a large part of the CO2 produced due to human while absorbing the heat accrued due to global warming.

The heart of the Ocean brings down the temperature of surface waters and land by regulating the currents.

All this lies at the mercy of Humans, if we interfere this serene but fragile habitat again and again. And we have enough proofs to consider this detrimental.

The scraping of the seabed using machines, can lead to alteration and destruction of deep-sea habitats, known for harboring species endemic to the very zone and its optimum conditions.

Any disturbance caused to the seafloor as machines extract these precious minerals can lead to the loss of species, fragmentation or complete loss of the ecosystem structure and function.

According to IUCN, the species being endemic can suffer even extinction as “physical disturbances in just one mining site can possibly wipe out an entire species”.

Irresponsible scraping of minerals off the sea floor can even uproot the undesirable and additional organisms and their supporting structures along with the much-needed metallic nodules.

It can further “stir up fine sediments consisting of silt, clay and the remains of microorganisms”, thereby generating plumes of suspended particles which may ultimately choke nearby organisms, affect the way they feed, the way they survive.

Survival of many aquatic organisms totally depend on different communication or echolocation techniques like Sonar (Sound navigation ranging) etc.

“Species such as whales, tuna and sharks could be affected by noise, vibrations and light pollution caused by mining equipment and surface vessels”, IUCN explains.

Constant drilling and consequent noise and light pollution in the world’s most undisturbed, quite place will not come without harm to its immediate surroundings.

With the human world so descended to the ocean floor itself, there is a bigger risk of chemical leaks and fuel spills. Ultimately, we can witness an interruption or complete stoppage of ecosystem services provided by the vast waters.

Is Sea-bed mining indispensably crucial for future? Can it be done sustainably?

The proponents have claimed it to offer the best path of supplying minerals such as cobalt, lithium, nickel, copper, vanadium and indium for uses in electric vehicles, storage batteries and other future green techs.

But a new study undertaken by experts from the University of Exeter, Globelaw and Greenpeace Research Laboratories have stated otherwise.

Thus, human societies can simultaneously preserve marine biodiversity and also eschew fossil fuels by just changing our behavior.  The green transition can thus proceed without extracting seabed minerals.

A researcher argues: “I challenge the assumption that we need to continue producing and consuming technological products at the rate at which we have become accustomed over the past decade or more”.

“Any commercial deep-sea mining activity at any scale will cause irreversible damage to deep-sea ecosystems. Recovery of species in deep-sea habitats is extremely slow – centuries or millennia in many cases.”

It is indeed true that we need additional access to resources with our burgeoning demands, yet we can learn to reuse and repair what’s available to us already because we know that we tend to waste.

An independent and enhanced regulation is the need of the hour as it will be challenging to avoid pollution of such clean deep environment while fulfilling one’s utter needs. This mandate is difficult and needs assurance by our leaders.

Even from history, remedying environmental impacts has never proved to be effective in practice. Involving researchers, environmentalists etc., can help widen our knowledge and correct the way we may work.

A consortium of 530 marine science and policy experts, business leaders and conservation groups like WWF have called for a moratorium on deep-sea mining at the international level until its hidden possible impacts are fully understood.

“A true transition from ownership to guardianship of the natural world could include a Rights of Nature approach to the ocean, rather than only considering the benefits that it may deliver to a small percentage of the global population,” explains the study.

High-quality, strict and rigid environmental impact assessments can be carried out before attempting any encroachment.

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