The United Nations has sent an environmental team to Australia to investigate the situation around the Great Barrier Reef amidst concerns that the growth of the mining industry, the development of ports in Queensland and the explosion in the number of ships carrying coal will put the entire world heritage site under threat. Experts say that the coral ecosystem of the Great Barrier Reef is at a crossroads thanks to soaring mining activity: Queensland is Australia’s largest coal producing State.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) team will meet with government officials, NGOs and environmental groups to try to determine the way forward to protect the site. Environmentalists say that besides mining, gas exploration is another big threat to the 1,800-mile long reef. UNESCO had said last year that it was "extremely concerned" that the Australian government had not informed it of plans to build a major LNG hub on Curtis Island near Queensland. The result of that development, critics say, has seen water quality drop and marine disease spread.
"The Great Barrier Reef is definitely at a crossroads and decisions that will be taken over the next one, two, three years might potentially be crucial for the long-term conservation (of the reef)," said Fanny Douvere of the UNESCO World Heritage Marine Programme. Experts are particularly concerned about the so far undeveloped Galilee Basin in Queensland; fears are that proposed mining and port development in that area- including at Abbot Point- will have a particularly detrimental impact on the close by reef. There are reportedly a dozen commercial ports in the wider area, seven of which have large development proposed or underway.
Australia's coal boom has brought prosperity to the country but it is a mixed blessing, as the 2010 ‘Shen Neng I’ grounding and oil spill on the reef showed; the reef is particularly vulnerable to a shipping casualty- and traffic is set to surge. Analysts’ projections indicate that we could see more than 10,000 bulk carriers crossing the Great Barrier Reef annually by 2020 (more than one per hour); the figure for last year was just 1,722. Parts of the coral reef are narrower than the English Channel and are home to the endangered Olive Ridley turtle and the snubfin dolphin. Besides, the region generates a massive 6 billion Australian dollars in revenue annually, thanks to tourists that flock to the so far pristine beaches of Queensland.
Environmental groups have predictably been critical of the Australian government’s development plans. “We are looking at an enormous, unprecedented increase in coal, oil and gas exploitation here," a Greenpeace spokesperson said. "The Great Barrier Reef is priceless but it is being treated like it's a worthless. It has been mismanaged for years and we are now at a tipping point."
Australian environment minister Burke said that shipping levels were a cause for concern,"as the vessels move through the reef area. So those shipping movement issues are issues that really have to be front of mind throughout all of this."
Activists are not convinced. Senior campaigner from Greenpeace John Hepburn the BBC, "The Great Barrier Reef is in danger from the coal industry and the fossil fuel boom that is happening, but it is a reckless expansion that will have direct impacts both in terms of the dredging as well as the increased shipping, as well as the impact of climate change on the Great Barrier Reef."