World Oceans Day and World Environment Day fall within a few days of each other on 5 and 8 June respectively. Designated as special days by the United Nations, the two are intrinsically linked. Addressing the importance of both should be at the forefront of all our minds if we are to have a healthier planet for next generations. Pakistan Navy can be seen here as a major supporter of both these important days.

The theme of this year’s World Oceans Day is “Our Oceans, Our Future”. World Environment Day’s theme is “Connecting People to Nature”. If we look at these two themes together, then the focus should perhaps be, “What we do on and to our land, affects our oceans”. We cannot have one without the other. They must be in harmony. Getting outdoors and experiencing nature is a wonderful experience for young and old. To preserve nature is an even more wonderful experience.

Last year prior to World Oceans Day and World Environment Day, Pakistan Navy pledged to plant more then one million mangrove saplings as part of its initiatives to preserve the marine environment and to raise awareness of the importance of mangrove protection amongst the public. This target has been achieved and future planting programmes are on the agenda. The awareness campaigns have added much to the understanding of why mangroves are important, that protecting them and the coastal environment is critical to protection of marine life, and that they provide as a barrier against natural disasters.

This year’s Pakistan Navy initiatives to celebrate both important days include campaign through lectures to focus on the importance of preserving the environment and ensuring clean oceans. Pamphlets, leaflets and banners will be distributed to schools, colleges, and residential areas for awareness of wider audience. Essay, charts, and speech competitions will also be held at schools and colleges. Video clips of activities will be shared through social media and cable operators to raise community awareness. Two vital components of the celebrations will be cleanup campaigns of harbours/ports and beach walk to clean up the litter on the beaches.

Helping the public to understand the threats to the environment is not an easy task. But we should not shrink from this. Everyone can make a difference if they think about their actions. I have written previously about the impact of plastics on the waterways of Pakistan. The environmental problems caused by plastics cannot be stressed often enough. In the past year the ‘Ban the Bag’ movement has taken hold in many places around the world. Cities are starting to ban all disposable plastic bags, take-a-way food and drink containers, and other forms of this noxious threat to the environment including the oceans. This is a big step forward.

In 1987, an Australian yachtsman, Ian Kiernan, sailed in the BOC Challenge around-the-world yacht race. Fulfilling a dream to sail through the legendary Sargasso Sea in the Atlantic, known for its beautiful long golden Sargassum seaweed and mysterious tales, he was horrified to discover that what he expected to be a pristine and magical environment, was full of rubbish. This lit a spark in Kiernan’s imagination and when he returned to Sydney, he joined forces with a friend, Kim McKay, to run a campaign – Clean Up Sydney Harbour.

Although Australia has strong environmental laws today, rubbish finds its way into the waterways. Sydney siders responded in force to the campaign and 40,000 volunteers joined forces on and around Sydney’s beautiful harbour. They cleaned up plastic containers, glass bottles, rusted car bodies, cigarette butts, and other rubbish and a new annual environmental campaign was born. In 1990, 300,000 volunteers across the nation participated in the first Clean Up Australia campaign.

In 1993, with the support of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Kiernan and McKay took the programme global with Clean Up the World. Today, an estimated 35 million people in 120 countries take part in this environmental initiative. So when we ask ourselves, “can one person make a difference?” the answer is clearly “yes”.

Across our world’s oceans, there are now five “garbage patches” where millions of tons of plastics and other rubbish congregate over millions of square kilometers. The patches are located in each of the heart of the world’s five gyres – North and South Atlantic, North and South Pacific, and the Indian Ocean. In simple terms, as identified by National Geographic, “A gyre is a large system of circular ocean currents formed by global wind patterns and forces created by Earth’s rotation. The movement of the world’s major ocean gyres helps drive the “ocean conveyor belt.” The ocean conveyor belt circulates ocean water around the entire planet. ”Debris picked up by the currents drifts into these stationary areas and, due to the lack of movement in the water, can accumulate for years.

The Indian Ocean Garbage Patch was first discovered by Marcus Eriksen - a marine scientist and founder of the 5 Gyres Institute - and his crew. It comprises an area of at least five million square kilometres in size, but with no clear boundaries. This patch came to greater prominence in the search for Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 which is believed to have disappeared somewhere between the coasts of Australia and the Africa. Search aircraft and ships participating in the extensive search noted the enormous amount of rubbish floating in the ocean including plastics, shipping containers, and other junk that had drifted into this garbage patch.

For marine life and sea birds, the millions of tons of plastics and other rubbish floating in the oceans and washing up shores can be fatal. For ships at sea, rubbish and other junk floating in the oceans can cause catastrophe.

New ideas and technologies are being explored. A 21-year-old Dutch entrepreneur, Boyan Slat, has developed an innovative technology to address this enormous challenge. Through The Ocean Cleanup, a relatively new scientific environmental organisation, Slat and his colleagues believe that new technology can clean up the oceans in a fraction of the time experts have generally believed would be required.

According to the Ocean Cleanup website, instead of going after the plastic, Boyan has devised a system through which, driven by the ocean currents, the plastic would concentrate itself, reducing the theoretical cleanup time from millennium to years. The system, which involves a static platform that passively collects plastics when wind and ocean currents push debris to the 2000-meter booms, will be the longest floating structure ever deployed in the ocean. The plastic will then be picked up by ships using a conveyor belt. There are also plans underway to recycle it into biofuel.

But the greatest challenge remains. How do we stop humans destroying the environment through ignorance, all forms of pollution, destruction of natural habitat, and non-environmentally-friendly planning? Education is critical, not only for children but for adults, governments, and corporations. Governments have the prime responsibility to develop comprehensive environment legislation and to enforce it at every level with significant penalties.

Awareness and public advocacy will be helpful. There is a profound logic that Pakistan Navy taking a lead in awareness campaigns of the importance of the marine environment as the correlation in people’s minds between oceans and the Navy is obvious. Although the Navy already partners with organisations such as the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Mangroves for the Future (MFF) Pakistan, World Wildlife Fund and other environmental groups, it would be good to see these partnerships expanded throughout the country.

Every day should be World Oceans and Environment Day. Once a year is not enough. The problems are dire and we all need to step up to the challenge today and every day to ensure that what we do does not destroy something as precious as our land and ocean environment. Connecting with nature helps us understand this so it is time to look around us, and grasp the magnitude and impact of human intervention. Every one of us can make a difference by our actions and making our voices heard to make change for the better. Our planet, and future generations will be grateful.