Indian Ocean pollution


The Polluted Indian Ocean

by Fred E. Foldvary, Senior Editor

Scientists at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, announced that a huge area of the Indian Ocean is heavily polluted. During a six-week expedition during February and March 1999, a team of scientists from the U.S.A., Europe, India, and the Maldive Islands, participating in the Indian Ocean Experiment (INDOEX), found a mass of pollution as large as the area of the United States - four million square miles or 100 million square kilometers.

The polluted areas include the Arabian Sea, between India and the Arabian peninsula, and the Bay of Bengal, between India and Southeast Asia. Countries located within the Indian Ocean include Sri Lanka (Ceylon) and the Maldives, located southwest of India. The whole Indian subcontinent is surrounded by massive pollution.

The scientists investigated how tiny pollutant particles called aerosols (made of soot, sulfates, nitrates, organic particles, fly ash and mineral dust) are transported through the atmosphere, and their effect on climate. They found a brownish haze layer over the Indian Ocean about 1000 miles off the coast, extending into the equatorial Indian Ocean to about 5 degrees south of the equator. The haze has high concentrations of carbon monoxide, organic compounds, and sulfur dioxide, evidence that it is caused by pollution. This shows how aerosol pollution can spread a long distance from the area of origin.

As the economy of India and the other countries in South Asia develop, the pollution will get even worse unless measures are taken to prevent it. Besides affecting the climate, the pollution reduces the amount of sunlight entering the ocean, reducing the amount of plant life and plankton, therefore reducing the ocean animal population. Advanced technology already in use in the United States and Europe can remove much of this pollution, especially the dark airborne particles.

(For more information, see INDOEX and Scripps.)

Government officials in many developing countries claim that their economies are too poor to afford pollution-reducing equipment, and that their first priority is to develop the economy. After their economy catches up with the developed countries, then they can confront the pollution. But this argument is a smoke screen.

Every less-developed country has policies to restrict investment and economic development. India, for example, restricts foreign investment to certain industries. Many countries require foreign investors to obtain local partners. There are often taxes and permits required to start a new enterprise. And then there are high taxes on the profits and restrictions on moving the profits out of the country. Taxes on labor and sales add to the costs.

If the top priority of a government were to maximize economic growth, these restrictions and taxes would not be in place. The government revenue would come from the source that does not hamper the market - land rent. Instead, developing countries let the rent be captured by the landed interests. We can tell where the priorities are by the actual practice and policy. Pollution is really a subsidy to industry at the expense of the people, wildlife, and future generations.

If the chiefs of government really wanted to maximize economic development, they could to so and also avoid polluting their environment and the oceans. They could shift taxation away from labor, profits, and sales, and instead, get their public revenue both from the rents of natural resources, including land sites, and from pollution charges. Polluters would then either reduce the pollution or pass the charge to the customer. The higher prices on those items that have a pollution charge would then induce a lower amount of purchase, reducing the pollution.

A tax shift from labor and enterprise in general to land rent and pollution charges would be a win-win both for the economy and for the environment. There is no real long-run trade-off between economic development and protecting the environment. The real tradeoff is between providing subsidies and privileges to landowners and industrialists, and promoting clean development.

Since India and some of the other countries in South Asia and the Indian Ocean are democracies, the people there could change the policy to prevent pollution. Let us hope this new report makes the South Asians aware that they need to change direction. The people can still avoid the terrifying climactic changes that could turn the subcontinent as well as the Indian Ocean into a wasteland.

-- Fred Foldvary      

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Copyright 1999 by Fred E. Foldvary. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieval system, without giving full credit to Fred Foldvary and The Progress Report.