SA claims vast tracts of sea floor

20 June 2006

South Africa is about to get a whole lot bigger. The country’s borders are likely to be enlarged to include an unclaimed million square kilometres – of ocean floor.

In terms of the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention, South Africa is in the process of claiming between 300 000 and 1.4-million square kilometres – some 25% to 115% of its current 1.2-million square kilometres of land – of underwater territory off the country’s mainland and around the Prince Edward and Marion group of Antarctic islands.

South Africa’s fishing, natural gas, diamond-mining and pharmaceutical industries are likely to be the first to benefit from the initiative, which is being managed by the Petroleum Agency of South Africa (Pasa).

If the claim to the UN is successful, SA’s current maritime territory, the marine Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), could be extended from its current 370km to 650km offshore by 2009.

The EEZ is the area in which South Africa has the sole right to marine resources such as fish, to extract oil and gas and mine diamonds and other minerals, in terms of the 1982 United Nations Law of the Sea Convention. SA has six years to lodge claims for its EEZ to be extended beyond the continental shelf.

The new territory would give South Africa a range of mountains higher than the Drakensberg, and a border with France. The two countries are working together to draw up a common border between SA’s Marion and Prince Edward Islands and the French Crozet Islands.

“This is the biggest-ever distribution of territory in the world – and so far without bloodshed,” Ian McLachlan, chairperson of the Shelf Claim Working Group, told the Sunday Times.

“It’s a significant amount of territory.”

The new UN law has provoked a new scramble for ocean land, as the sea bed – deeper than 5km in places – is considered the earth’s final frontier. A total of 45 countries qualify for extended underwater territory, but so far only five have submitted claims because of the cost and complexity of the process.

In November 2005 the South African government approved an initial R23-million from the Central Energy Fund to fund the initiative, and will be helping poorer African countries to process their own claims.

The earth’s shrinking resources and growing energy needs mean any new territory is at a premium, particularly as new mining technology can provide greater access to deep-sea reserves – such as the gas hydrate, found trapped in ice deposits on the sea bed.

“We are really doing this for our grandchildren,” Pasa CEO Jack Holliday told Independent Online.

“Benefits not claimed now will be lost for ever. We hope, of course, to find oil and more exploitable gas. But much of the extended claim is in very deep water, more than 2 500m, where hydrocarbon, gas hydrates, minerals and placer deposits are thought to exist.

“There is no technology to exploit them now, but there may be in the future. The adaptation of bacterial organisms found at great depth could benefit cancer and pharmaceutical research.”

SAinfo reporter

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