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Great Barrier Reef should be put on list of World Heritage Sites in danger says UNESCO

Great Barrier Reef should be put on list of World Heritage Sites in danger says UNESCO


  • GS 3 || Environment || Biodiversity || Conservation Efforts

Why in the news?

Recently, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee has suggested that the Australia’s Great Barrier Reef should be put to a list of “in danger” World Heritage Sites.

Present context:

  • Australia has objected to the proposal, which is part of an ongoing debate between UNESCO and the Australian government over the renowned site’s status.
  • Background: Australia’s protection of the reef
    • Australia has been fighting hard for the past four years to keep the Great Barrier Reef off the ‘in danger’. The reef is a major tourist attraction in Australia that generates thousands of jobs. Listing it on the ‘endangered’ World Heritage Sites could potentially lead to its removal from World Heritage Sites.
    • UNESCO World Heritage delegates were hosted on a trip to a stretch of the reed in 2015 but scientists since then noted that the world’s biggest coral reef system has experienced three major coral bleaching events because of severe marine heat waves.
    • Australia has raised concerns stating that the recommendation is based on political bias. However, environment experts and scientists rejected the theory of political bias. Richard Leck, Head of Oceans for the World Wide Fund for Nature, Australia said that the recommendation has been made by world-renowned scientists.
  • Australia’s carbon emissions:
    • Australia’s reliance on coal-fired electricity makes it one of the world’s top carbon polluters per capita, but the country’s conservative government has firmly supported the country’s fossil fuel sectors, claiming that tighter emissions controls will lose jobs.
    • Since 2015, it hasn’t updated its climate objectives. It caused environmentalists to criticize the Australian government’s unwillingness to take action.

What is the reason behind this move?

  • It was recommended for inclusion on the list due to the effect of climate change, which has resulted in severe coral degradation.
  • After UNESCO initially considered the reef’s “in danger” status in 2017, Canberra pledged more than A$3 billion (£; $2.2bn) to improve the reef’s health.
  • However, several coral bleaching events have occurred on the reef in the last five years, resulting in widespread coral loss.
  • When corals are stressed by changes in conditions such as temperature, light, or nutrients, they expel the symbiotic algae zooxanthellae that live in their tissues, turning them completely white. Coral bleaching is the term for this occurrence.
  • A marine heat wave is a period of abnormally warm sea surface temperatures that can last anywhere from a few days to many years.

What is the Great Barrier Reef?

  • The Great Barrier Reef is located in the Coral Sea, off the coast of Queensland, Australia, and is the world’s largest coral reef system. The system was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981.
  • The world’s biggest reef system consists of 900 islands stretching over 2,300 kilometers and covering 344,400 square kilometers. There are around 2,900 reefs in all.
  • The world’s biggest reef system, which is made up of microscopic organisms known as coral polyps, can be seen from space.

Importance of coral reefs:

  • Protect coastlines: Coral reefs defend coasts from the destructive impacts of wave movement and tropical storms.
  • Sustain biodiversity: Coral reefs are ecologically significant because, in terms of species variety and biological production in the ocean, they are the analog to the tropical rainforest. Coral reefs support the development of related ecosystems, which in turn permit the development of vital habitats, fisheries, and livelihoods.
  • Nutrition and Habitat: Coral reefs offer habitat and refuge for a wide range of aquatic creatures. They provide nitrogen and other vital nutrients to marine food chains, as well as helping to fix carbon and nitrogen.
  • Economic: Economically, coral reefs are important to the fishing industry since many fish breed there and young fish spend time there before moving out to sea. The Great Barrier Reef contributes more than 1.5 billion dollars to Australia’s economy each year through fishing and tourism.
  • Climate change record: Furthermore, coral reefs are climatologically significant because they give an accurate long-term record of climate change and contribute to our understanding of seasonal climatic variability in many distant tropical waters.

Risks and threats to coral reefs:

  • Climate Change and its impact on Coral reefs:
    • Ocean acidification: Reduces calcification rates in reef-building and reef-associated species by altering the chemical characteristics of seawater through a fall in pH. Coral reefs may eventually be dissolved as a result of this.
    • Tropical storms will become more frequent and intense, causing coral breakage, dislocation, and deterioration due to wind and waves.
    • Precipitation changes: greater precipitation will result in more freshwater discharge. Freshwater runoff lowers salt levels, may induce bleaching, and adds nutrients and sediments to the environment, perhaps causing disease outbreaks.
  • ENSO: Bleaching of reef flat corals can occur when they are suddenly exposed to the atmosphere during occurrences like very low tides, ENSO-related sea level decreases, or tectonic uplift. As a result of the high or low temperatures, increased solar radiation, and sea water dilution caused by heavy rains, zooxanthellae loss and coral mortality might occur.
  • Marine Pollution: Zooxanthellae loss happens as a result of increasing concentrations of different chemical pollutants and oil in the environment. Plastic and rubbish from the beach frequently wind up in the water, disrupting the fragile ecology of coral reefs.
  1. Overfishing and destructive fishing practices
  2. Sedimentation
  3. Mining of corals (for example in south and south-east Asia)
  4. Poorly managed tourism


What are “in danger” World Heritage Sites?

  • In line with Article 11 (4) of the 1972 World Heritage Convention, the List of World Heritage in Danger is maintained.
  • The list’s purpose is to alert the world community to circumstances that jeopardize a property’s inscription on the World Heritage List, as well as to promote corrective action.
  • The World Heritage Committee can inscribe a World Heritage property on the List of World Heritage in Danger if the condition of the site meets at least one of the criteria mentioned.
  • It alerts the international community to these situations in the hopes that it can join efforts to save these endangered sites by inscribing a site on the List of World Heritage in Danger.
  • It alerts the World Heritage Committee to allocate immediate assistance from the World Heritage Fund to the endangered property.
  • It also requires the World Heritage Committee to create and implement a corrective action plan in cooperation with the State Party in question, as well as to monitor the site’s condition.

Highlights of the UN Committee’s report:

  • According to scientists, extreme marine heatwaves have caused three significant bleaching episodes in the coral reef ecosystem since 2015.
  • When the committee examines the matter in July, the study recommends that the world’s largest coral reef ecosystem be added to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage in Danger.
  • Inclusion on the “in-danger list” is not seen as a penalty, and some countries have their sites included to attract world notice and aid in their preservation.

Initiatives to Protect Corals:

  • A number of worldwide efforts, such as the:
    • International Coral Reef Initiative
    • Global Coral Reef Alliance (GCRA)
    • Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network (GCRMN)
    • The Global Coral Reef R&D Accelerator Platform
  • Similarly, India’s Ministry of Environment, Forests, and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) has incorporated coral reef research in its Coastal Zone Studies program (CZS).
  • In India, the Zoological Survey of India (ZSI) is working to rebuild coral reefs using “biorock” or mineral accretion technology with the aid of Gujarat’s forest department.
  • The National Coastal Mission Program, which aims to conserve and preserve the country’s coral reefs.


Great barrier reefs support a wide range of species and maintain the quality of the coastal biosphere. Corals control the level of carbon dioxide in the water by converting it into a limestone shell. If this process does not take place, the amount of carbon dioxide in the ocean water would increase significantly and affect ecological niches. It is high time to keep them safe and protected to maintain the ecosystem and ecological balance.

Mains oriented question:

What is the significance of the Great Barrier Reef? Why do they need to be protected? (200 words)