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India’s deep-sea mission push Geopolitics vs Environmental sustainability

In one of the more visionary steps taken, the cabinet committee on economic affairs (CCEA), has approved the ministry of Earth Sciences proposal on ‘Deep Ocean Mission’ to explore the deep ocean for resources and develop deep-sea technologies for sustainable use of ocean resources.

 Why control over oceans is important?

India is a large maritime country and is located right into the centre of the Indian Ocean. The role of the Indian Ocean in the global economy is hard to overestimate: gyrostatically, three-quarters of the worldwide maritime trade and half of the world’s oil supplies pass through its waters. Chokepoints such as the Malacca Strait in the east and the Hormuz and the Bab el Mandeb straits in the west make much of that shipping exposed in case of military conflict. The oceans as the last frontier of humankind offer enough resources to guard against any potential threat in the future.

The six dimensions of the Deep-Sea Mission

Its multidimensional form can be gauged from the components that includes technology development deep-sea mining, and manned submersible; innovations for exploration and conservation of deep-sea biodiversity, deep ocean survey and exploration, and an advanced marine station for ocean biology, apart from the more anticipated variables like ocean climate change and energy from the ocean.

If we actually take all components forward, India will indeed become a marine superpower.

What are we looking for into the oceans?

 Mineral pool

Three main types of deep-sea mineral deposits are being targeted for mining:

  • cobalt-rich crusts usually found on seamounts,
  • seafloor massive sulfides on hydrothermal vents, and
  • Polymetallic nodules that occur over huge plains in the deep sea.

It is deep into the oceans that you find rare earth metals and high-value minerals that are overgrown by entire biological communities. The number of potential compounds obtained from marine organisms now exceeds 28,000, and hundreds are being discovered every year.

Biological pool

  • The ocean is literally a pool of viral material, where they dominate other microbes such as bacteria and archaea, thereby significantly influencing the geochemical cycles of our planet.
  • Some organisms such as isopods, amphipods, and snailfish have developed extraordinary mechanisms to fight viruses of the deep that threaten their health. Take sea cucumbers, for example, the ultimate scavengers of the deep that have developed a special type of symbiosis called protective symbiosis. By examining the gut of a sea cucumber retrieved from Mariana Trench in 2017, scientists discovered that certain bacteria have evolved to live inside the gut of sea cucumbers in exchange for shelter, the bacteria give protection against the viruses contained in the sediment that sea cucumbers eat. With such mechanisms, the deep-sea could hold the cure for many diseases in the years to come.
  • Exceptional biodiversity exists in the oceans. Food resources such as Kelp and Krill are the best-known source of protein abound in Indian Ocean waters.
  • The scaly-foot snail is one of Earth’s strangest creatures. It lives more than 2,300 meters below the surface of the sea on a trio of deep-sea hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the Indian Ocean. Here it has evolved a remarkable form of protection against the crushing, grim conditions found at these Stygian depths. It grows a shell made of iron.

Imagine it being used for the genetic transformation of human soldiers that the Chinese are going to employ everywhere.

India is in a prime position to explore its maritime environment like no other country.

Understanding the economics behind ocean exploration

Spending Rs. 4077 crores on this mission mode project in a phase-wise manner will be a game changer.

According to the latest Global Marine Biotechnology Industry Report, this field will have a global market size of USD 5.4 billion by the year 2027. In March 2020, Report Ocean stated that “the global biotechnology market is estimated to reach USD 741 billion by 2026”, pretty high compared to the forecasted market size for seabed mining, which is estimated as USD 7 billion.

What we stand to lose in the exploration?

India’s ability for ocean exploration may not make India secure, geopolitically and economically and not even against any potential Chinese threat, but it has the potential to bring huge cost to humanity and the environment and like every country India will contribute to it.

Most of the technologies will come with their own problems and at a huge environmental cost.

Cost of deep-sea mining

Deep sea mining comes with issues not known in general. But some environmental costs that may arise include:

  • Water masses are likely to move in all directions during mining, thereby, stirring and redistributing sediments on the ocean floor. This may impair the growth of nodules.
  • Mining of nodules and bringing the nodules from the deep sea requires enormous amounts of energy, and everyone knows from where it will be supplied till, we do not have an artificial Sun.
  • The mining ships are required to remain in the sea for a longer period (3-4 years) as it is not economical to bring them to the shore quite often. This necessitates processing on the ship itself otherwi­se the whole operation becomes uneconomical.
  • Moreover, ocean mining is actually bad news for wildlife, as it severely impacts the ocean food chain, it can cause the extinction of creatures found nowhere else in the world and which no one has ever seen as well.
  • Such an action offers all the possibility of disturbing our best ally against any weather changes, climatic changes, and unusual weather phenomena.

The threat comes from every action-fish farming, desalination plant construction. Shipping cable laying and what not.

Are we going to end up increasing the cost of cleaning our oceans much more than what we can actually harvest?

India is not the only country going after ocean exploration

This effort is not unique as almost all the Great Powers have intensified their pursuit of dominating the maritime domain. All of the major powers are running behind maritime exploration for their own vested interests.

Russia is working out New shipping routes in the Arctic, where summer sea ice has shrunk by about two-thirds over three decades. The northern sea route (NSR) along Russia’s edge, which is likely to be free of ice helped by global temperature changes, can reduce the sailing distance between Asian ports and northern Europe by 40 percent.

China’s Intent in the South China Sea is not hidden. The significance of this region lies in terms of increasingly imposed conflict over control of resources, high population density, maritime trade routes, and as the fastest-growing economic region in the world. The region consists of the South China Sea which is located in the Central Indo-Pacific region. It consists of the Strait of Malacca, Sunda Strait, and Lombok Strait – routes that are vital for global trade.

Chinese are in direct confrontation in the South China Sea so much so that The Chinese regime claims that it has historical ownership over nearly the entire region. China is increasingly expanding its geopolitical reach in Asia and beyond by the use of trade and military with an ostensible aim of controlling the entire resources of the South China Sea, its deep seas along with its trade routes. China not only has a hold over Hambantota port (Sri Lanka), which is just a few hundred miles off the shores of India. China is supplying military equipment to India’s neighbors such as submarines to Myanmar, a frigate to Sri Lanka, equipment to Bangladesh and Thailand, thus, in a way, colonizing the entire region.

India has no option but to develop deep-sea technology

For India to tackle Chinese dominance in deep-sea exploration, REE, and in the South China Sea, India not only needs to have a maritime alliance with QUAD but also share the know-how related to anti-submarine activities, develop the infrastructure to deploy more and larger warships and explore the entire maritime domain with a different intent, different technology, different strategy, and different approach altogether. It is a necessity for India to control maritime waters and develop multidimensional technologies for making its presence felt in the maritime domain.

Word of caution

True, if India does not wake up now, the Chinese with all their posturing and intent will dent the peace of mankind and the Indian Ocean community led by India in a severe manner. However, we cannot willfully keep damaging our oceans in this race to be secure, powerful, and be just ahead. In this pursuit, are we not creating a new recipe for loss and a new background for a Copenhagen-type summit but for the Oceans this time?

For India to be a geopolitical power, economic power to be a Vishva guru only geopolitical aspects, economic and technology aspects are not important but also its environmental and sustainability aspects. India cannot be a true leader without innovation in blending all approaches together. India needs to rethink its approach towards a new soft power as it has always been so…but this time blending everything together.

Author- K Siddhartha

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