Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) is one of the many significant issues of contemporary
security discourse. It has gained primacy in national maritime policies and finds emphasis in
maritime and naval strategy. MDA has also evolved into an effective tool of international
relations and states have successfully integrated it into foreign policy at the bilateral and
multilateral levels. A number of multilateral institutions and organisations have internalized
MDA and the issue is frequently discussed during summits, ministerial and senior officials
meetings of the Indian Ocean Rim association (IORA), the Indian Ocean Naval symposium
(IONS), the Association of Southeast Asian States (ASEAN), East Asia Summit (EAS), the
ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting (ADMM) Plus, the Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral
Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), etc.
The navies have a specialized perspective of MDA that is immersed in hard security. Likewise the marine enforcement agencies focus on non-state actors particularly in the context of asymmetric threats and challenges such as piracy, terrorism, criminal and illegal activities at sea. Notwithstanding the specificity of the mandate, roles and missions, navies and maritime law enforcement agencies operate together through sophisticated information exchange networks and are beneficiary of MDA through national and regional grids.
Ironically, MDA is understood, articulated and practiced through a narrow prism of strategic-military continuum with emphasis on hard security. This understanding and practice of MDA is quite narrow and there is little reference to salient marine issues of ecology, environment, climate change, oxygen deficient zones, acidification, sustainable development and judicious use of sea, etc.
In this context, it is useful to recall the 1982 Law of the Sea which establishes a comprehensive framework for the regulation and management of the ocean spaces. It is a rich mix of security, safety and science issues and addresses maritime boundaries, safety and security of transport, ownership of sea based living and non-living resources, environment-ecology, scientific research, etc.
Similarly, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), the specialist arm of the United Nations dealing with maritime issues, defines MDA as ‘the effective understanding of anything associated with the maritime domain that could impact the security, safety, economy, or environment’. It identifies ‘all areas and things of, on, under, relating to, adjacent to, or bordering on a sea, ocean, or other navigable waterway, including all maritime-related activities, infrastructure, people, cargo, and vessels and other conveyances’ as the maritime domain.
It would be appropriate to expand the existing understanding and practice of MDA into a wider mandate and include issues such as climate change, sea level rise, marine environment ecology, Marine Protected Areas, coastal management for sustainable development and resilience to climate change, etc. The preferred term could be Marine Domain Awareness for at least four important reasons.
First is about Climate Change. It is widely accepted that climate induced changes in the oceans have manifested into catastrophic natural event such as cyclones and hurricanes and their frequency and intensity has increased. Furthermore, these have become more erratic and follow unpredictable paths. For instance in the Bay of Bengal, the Cyclone Fani made landfall in May on the Odisha coast near Puri after spending nearly 11 days over the Bay of Bengal, gathering strength. This necessitated frequent revision of forecasting its landfall at least nine by the Indian Met Department. It is useful to mention that Cyclone Fani was also only the second cyclone in 128 years to have made landfall in India in the pre-monsoon season.
Second is about Sea Level Rise (SLR). In September 2019, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has noted that ‘globally sea levels are estimated to rise 1.1 meter by 2100, if countries are not able to restrict emissions “well below” 2 degrees Celsius above pre- industrial levels, as stated in the 2015 Paris climate agreement’. This will have direct impact on the lives of 680 million people living in low-lying coastal zones. Naturally, the navies and coast guards will be the first responders and would have to be prepared for such eventuality necessitating good understanding of SLR related issues.
Third is Blue Economy which is widely understood and practiced based on the principles of sustainable use of ocean resources and preserving the health of ocean ecosystem. In the context of the latter, the human knowledge of the ocean ecosystem particularly about biodiversity is still very weak. This is further compounded by aggressive human interventions in the form of pollution, discharge from rivers etc. which affects the health of the oceans and consequently the livelihoods of coastal communities.
Fourth is in the context of Sustainable Development Goals 2030 wherein environment, ecology and sustainable use of ocean-based resources have found reference. Goal 14, titled “Life Below Water”, focuses on good health of the oceans as also on the sustainable use of marine resources for economic growth and human well-being. According to a study, “by 2050, 88% of fish stocks will be overfished if current trends continue.” Even the high seas are overfished, and 140 nations have initiated in the UN a High Seas Treaty and by 2020, it is hoped, new rules governing fish quotas and conservation areas on the high seas will be operational.
While safety and security issues concerning the oceans and seas are critical, the necessity to understand and comprehend the physical, chemical and biological changes in these large bodies of water and coastal zones is vital. Equally important is to respond to a range of consequences arising from these changes that impact on the state and its people is vital.
The navies and marine enforcement agencies are naturally ‘wired’ to respond to hard security issues and hence these agencies do not monitor nature-man driven developments at sea and coastal areas; however these agencies are prepared to provide humanitarian support through humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) and search and rescue SAR operations.
The role of navies and law enforcement agencies in the evolving climate-security matrix is now an acknowledged fact and militaries are developing comprehensive strategies and capacities to respond to climate-security challenges and threats and some have even constituted specialized units for such purposes. These forces would rely on Marine Domain Awareness to perform their mandated missions and associated tasks.
Dr Vijay Sakhuja is associated with Kalinga International Foundation, New Delhi.