Q&A: Mitrasen Bhikajee on ocean science in island states


Speed read

  • Capacity building is needed for small island developing states to benefit from tech transfer
  • Such states should be called 'large ocean states' to highlight their assets
  • They often fail to grasp the need for managing the open ocean

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Technology transfer and capacity building are key for small island states, the director of the UN's ocean science body tells SciDev.Net.

Scientific experts met to discuss capacity building and marine technology transfer in small island developing states (SIDS) in New York last month (14–17 May). The meeting was held under the auspices of UN ocean science body the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) and the UN Office of the High Representative for the Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States.

The event was held ahead of the Third International Conference on SIDS, which will be hosted by Samoa in September 2014 and where recommendations agreed on at the New York meeting and subsequent regional meetings, such as establishing additional regional IOC centres with a science-training component, will be presented.

SciDev.Net spoke to IOC director Mitrasen Bhikajee about the importance of science and technology for SIDS to manage the oceans. Bhikajee is a marine biologist from Mauritius. He has been a director of the Mauritius Oceanography Institute and an advisor to the UN on international scientific projects.

Why is the transfer of marine technology to small Island countries so important?

All the oceans are connected. There is in effect only one ocean, so anything that one particular country does to its ocean can impact on all others — it could be carried from one country to another because there is no barrier.

The ability to manage coasts and oceans should be universal. Every country should be equipped to manage them because we form a chain. The strength of that chain depends on the weakest link, so every single country should be strong enough to manage their ocean.

Certain technologies that can help to achieve this are available in developed countries and emerging economies but are not available yet in the least developed countries. Transfer of technology is essential for everybody's good because, if we don't manage the oceans in their entirety, we are putting the planet's last support system at stake.

But transferring technology from one country to another will not work without the capacity to make use of it. So capacity building is the first step in technology transfer.

What technologies are being discussed?

The IOC has produced guidelines on the transfer of marine technology, and there we define technology broadly so something can be very basic, such as ecological work that any developing country can do.

Then there are the high-end technologies such as research vessels and sophisticated equipment. Obviously, the capacity to develop certain technologies depends on the economy of that country, so when we talk about technology transfer, it's not just about the high-end elements, it is also about the simple ideas that can be transferred.

Apart from economic limitations, what sort of obstacles are there to the transfer of marine technology?

In several developing countries that have received technology, we found that the biggest inherent problem was a lack of awareness of the need for them to manage their coasts and to exploit their marine resources.

The essential thing is to present SIDS as 'large ocean states'. They've got assets. So instead of saying: "We are vulnerable", they can say: "We've got assets that we would like to manage and this would be good for everybody".

Now the question of technology transfer becomes even more important because SIDS can form partnerships with developed countries to manage and explore their marine resources. Of course, the vulnerability is still there, but they've got more to offer now as large ocean states. How the IOC can help them is by using its expertise to identify relevant technologies and find them partners in other countries.

Will they be able to share marine technologies internationally?

There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Each country has specific requirements. Countries with a population of 50–60,000 people cannot be expected to have a large team to manage their resources. They will probably need to set up combined programmes with other countries nearby.

The main thing that was discussed at the New York meeting was countries being able to join together and have more cooperation between SIDS, South-South.

To give an example, Mauritius and the Seychelles are both small island states in the Indian Ocean. When we both went to the UN to make claims for an extended continental shelf — the part of the seabed stretching out from a nation's coast over which it has exploration and exploitation rights — we found that we were going to claim for the same area, so we decided to make a joint submission. Both countries are SIDS and neither currently has the capacity for exploration. But the area is now a joint one and the countries are co-managing it and later plan to co-exploit it. They have a joint management committee that meets regularly. When you don't have the means to do it alone, you team up and do it together.

What role does innovation play in technology transfer?

Science and technology are extremely important for SIDS. As is innovation because sometimes when you transfer technology, it doesn't fit in the new environment. A certain level of innovation is required to adapt it and this is why we believe that capacity building is essential.

We need a core of local experts, or, in very small states, a regional group of experts, to help a country identify its needs so that it does not have to keep relying on external consultants who may be unaware of local requirements. Adapting science and technology for these island states is important.

What are SIDS' priorities for technology transfer?

Each country must decide what its needs are. For island states, improved coastal management is most urgent because most of them have a limited coastal zone and most activities are based in it.

In addition, there is very little awareness in SIDS about the importance of also managing the open ocean. When you talk to policymakers in the SIDS about the open ocean they are very vague about what it involves. This is one area where the member states would probably be very willing to collaborate and do anything to enable marine technology transfer.

How does a country go about getting the right kind of skills and right kind of people for technology transfer?

In the IOC's strategic plan for capacity development, we would like countries to establish a core staff of qualified marine scientists who can determine their nation's basic needs and then advise their government and other policymakers. Once they've got some capacity, it will be up to them to decide how far they want to go.

For an island state, there is a limit based on their population. They would need more expertise as they start to call themselves large ocean states because the area of ocean that they've got to manage is a lot bigger than that of other countries. They don't have the people but they've got this resource that they have to manage, while other countries have the people but not the same area of ocean to manage.

Also, right now, whenever a country wants to carry out research in the part of an ocean over which another nation has exclusive economic control, it must seek permission. The UN's Law of the Sea requires a person from the country in whose economic zone the research is being carried out to come aboard the vessel as an observer. What we are trying to do is ensure that this person is more than just an observer. We would like them to be involved during the planning phase and in collecting and even analysing the data.

Will there be any new regional training centres to boost SIDS' capacity to manage the oceans?

The IOC already has regional training centres. For example, there's one in China. Now people at the conference are saying there should be more where the SIDS are. This will need some discussion. What came out of the New York meeting (14–17 May) are recommendations, including one to set up additional regional centres with a training component, to be considered at the three regional preparatory meetings for the Third International Conference. We hope that some of the recommendations will be taken to the Third International Conference that will follow. We don't know what recommendations will be approved. It will be up to the policymakers, but I'm sure that the creation of additional regional training centres is one of the recommendations that will make it through.