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Great Barrier Reef: UN Alarmed over Dumping
Jun 27, 2014

The UN has expressed alarm at Australia’s proposal to dump 3 million cubic metres of dredged material into the Great Barrier Reef world heritage site. The Australian and Queensland governments have granted approval for dumping as part of the expansion of the Abbot Point coal port, which lies on the fringes of the reef. 

At the annual meeting of the UNESCO world heritage committee in Doha, delegates noted with concern the Abbot Point project. Australia was warned the reef could be added to the World Heritage in Danger list at the next meeting in 2015 if alternative development methods were not considered. 

The committee said it regrets the state party’s approval for dumping 3 million cubic metres of dredge material inside the property prior to having undertaken a comprehensive assessment of alternative and potentially less impacting development and disposal options. 

Conservation groups have said the dumping could irreparably damage the coral. The reef survives on a delicate symbiosis between its plants and animals. Corals provide the skeleton on which the entire ecosystem is built. These interactions are already significantly threatened by the runoff of agricultural chemicals and destruction of increasingly fragile corals by cyclones. In three decades the coral cover on the reef has fallen by 50 per cent. 

Australian efforts to improve the water quality on the reef were praised by UNESCO. A recent government study found efforts to improve water quality were working, leading the Australian and Queensland government to call for UNESCO to drop its consideration of the site as threatened. 

But Australian promises that dredging effects would be offset by a 150 per cent overall improvement were called into question by delegates who said they had not seen a concrete proposal for how this would be achieved. Australia responded by saying the 150 per cent improvement was legally binding and would therefore be achieved, but failed to demonstrate how this would happen. Questions were also raised over Australia’s decision to transfer oversight of environmental decisions from the federal government to the Queensland state government. 

The World Heritage in Danger list is dominated by sites in countries torn apart by conflict. It is used to urge, assist and sometimes embarrass countries into protecting the properties they manage that are significant to all humankind. Icons of Syria, Congo, Iraq and Afghanistan make up one third of the 45 of the listed properties. If the reef were to be placed on the list it would join just a handful of sites from developed countries to be considered threatened. 


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