Friday June 14, 2024

Continental Shelf Extension: A gateway to future dividends

By Salman Ahmed Khan
December 29, 2015

On 13 March this year UN Commission on the Limits of Continental Shelf (UNCLCS) accepted recommendations for extension of the outer limits of continental shelf on Pakistan’s case. Resultantly, historic event in the country’s history was engraved and we proudly witnessed manifestation of over one and a half decade long tireless efforts when Pakistan became the first country in the region which has its continental shelf extended to 350 NM.

Continental Shelf of a coastal state is the natural prolongation of its land territory in to the sea.  If this natural prolongation extends beyond 200 NM then as per article 76 of UNCLOS, the coastal state under certain geological conditions can extend their juridical Continental Shelf to 350 NM. 

Realising the significance of Continental Shelf Extension, Pakistan Navy initiated the Continental Shelf case at ministerial level in 1995. Subsequently Defence Committee of Cabinet (DCC) instituted an inter-ministerial high power Technical Evaluation Committee (TEC) to implement Pakistan continental shelf project. Keeping in view the geological nature of project; National Institute of Oceanography (NIO), under the administrative control of Ministry of Science & Technology was entrusted to conduct this project in close liaison with Pakistan Navy Hydrographic Department (PNHD).

The project was executed in three Phases, i.e., Desk Top Study (Phase I) was undertaken in consultation with National Oceanographic Centre, Southampton, U.K.; Data Acquisition (Phase II) was completed in two parts; during the first part French Marine Research Institute (Ifremer) undertook the detailed multi-beam bathymetric survey. In the second part 2D Multi-channel Seismic Survey was conducted under the supervision of Law of the Sea experts of M/s Seaforth Canada.  Geodetic survey of Pakistan baseline was undertaken exclusively by Pakistan Navy Hydrographic Department without any involvement of foreign consultants. Phase III regarding the preparation of case for the submission to the United Nation’s Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf was completed in consultation with M/s Seaforth, Canada.

On 26 August 2013, a seven member Subcommission comprising of members from Japan, China, Mozambique, Kenya, Denmark, Georgia and Argentina was formulated at United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf to evaluate technical details of Pakistan’s case. In the yearlong process Pakistan technical delegation held multiple interactions with the UN Commission. During each interaction Pakistan delegation was posed number of technical questions which were answered in a befitting manner through extensive technical work involving digital data, maps, reports and presentations.  The precision and speed with Pakistan delegation responded to each query helped in culminating the whole process successfully within a year with unanimous draft recommendations in favour of Pakistan’s Case by the Subcommission.

On 10 March 2015 Pakistan delegation delivered final concluding presentation to UN Commission. UN Commission approved the final adoption of Recommendations on 19 March 2015. So far 80 countries have submitted claims to UNCLCS out of which recommendations of 22 countries including Pakistan have been finalised.

Overlapping continental shelves around the globe have been a cause of rising political temperatures and military deployments, indicating the severity of situation.  South China Sea is the most prominent example of such hotspots, where, overlapping claims exist amongst China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and Philippines. In East China Sea; overlapping claims exist amongst China, Japan and South Korea. Arctic is another such region, where; Russia, Canada, Denmark and Norway are contesting each other’s claim.

On regional level, Bay of Bengal had overlapping claims from bordering states.  In 2009, Bangladesh took Myanmar and India to International Arbitration and consequently got decision on its maritime boundary disputes.  Somalia has taken Kenya to International Court of Justice in August 2014 seeking resolution of its maritime boundary, where bone of contention is a triangular area of more than 100,000 square kilometers, potentially rich in oil & gas deposits.

By analogy, elsewhere in the world, deepwater fan and deltaic systems are of great interest to oil exploration companies. Oil and gas developments in sediment-rich margins such as offshore Nigeria, Brazil, Angola are clear indicators of potential for the Indus Fan. Gas hydrates have been well-studied in the Makran region of the Pakistan continental margin, although few indications have so far been noted of their widespread presence in the Indus Fan region. According to a study conducted by International Seabed Authority (ISBA); expected potential of some of the resources in Pakistan continental shelf are as under:

In addition to the benefit of exclusive rights over substantial area of seabed and subsoil resources, Pakistan has secured the potential source of additional resources for generations to come. The data acquired during the project has not only provided a reliable and firm database, essential for future marine research and exploration of marine resources but it will also provide a fine benchmark for our scientists to further promote and develop the geological and geophysical research in maritime sector. The project will also contribute directly to the petroleum and mineral sector in offshore maritime industry/market in particular.

Pakistan coast is 990 km long extending from Sir Creek in the east to Gwadar bay in west. The Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of Pakistan is 240,000 sq km along with extended Continental Shelf of over 50,000 sq. km.  Dividends from vast EEZ and extended Continental Shelf area through exploitation of its resources are only possible with appropriate awareness and realisation of this immense wealth.  In order to have correct estimation of natural resources, mapping and building database w.r.t Pakistan’s maritime zones is an essential requirement. Steps needs to be taken in this regard include:

a.       Existing data from national and international sources including seismic, bathymetric, oceanographic and hydrographic information to be merged to form a GIS resource map.

b.       Gaps in data need to be identified, a detailed national resource mapping plan be outlined in consultation with relevant experts.

c.       Pakistan needs to pursue acquisition of research ship for furtherance of scientific research activity in maritime area. 

d.       Pending acquisition; MoU and agreements with friendly countries need to be considered to enhance research and mapping in own area of jurisdiction.

The opportunity to extend outer limits of continental shelf under Article 76 of UNCLOS 82 has been timely availed by Pakistan. More than 15 years of dedicated efforts and hard work has resulted in this marvelous national achievement.  At this critical juncture it is imperative that consolidated steps originating from policy makers, supported by experts and executed at field level be put in place for tangible long term sustainable resource exploitation model.  Necessary steps at ministerial/ departmental level are necessary to promote sustainable exploration, implementation of national jurisdiction and exploitation of seabed resources.