The idea of recognizing a nation state’s special rights over sea space outside territorial limits and calling it Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) is a relatively new one. In earlier times, a country’s sovereign territorial waters extended up to the distance where cannon shots landed in the water from the coast and was generally taken as three nautical miles. As gun ranges improved, this limit was extended to twelve nautical miles.

In a bid to secure resources of adjoining seas after WW-II, countries began to claim jurisdiction beyond the twelve miles limit. United States of America was the first country to proclaim exclusive jurisdiction beyond traditional territorial limit of twelve miles, while Chile and Peru were the first to put a figure of 200 nautical miles on their claims of maritime zones.

In 1982, United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS) was formally adopted which recognized the concept of EEZ as an area beyond the territorial sea, subject to special legal regime established in Part V of the convention, under which the rights and jurisdiction of the coastal States and the rights and freedom of other States are governed by the relevant provisions of the treaty.

This definition made a clear distinction between territorial sea and EEZ, wherein while the former conferred full sovereignty over waters adjoining its coast up to twelve nautical miles limit,  the later conferred ‘sovereign rights’ below the surface of the sea. The sea surface however could be used by other states for ‘innocent passage’ of their flagged vessels.

In 1994, UNCLOS came into force after ratification of requisite number of sixty countries and to date approximately 162 countries have joined it. It is interesting to note that US has not ratified UNCLOS even though it recognizes it as codification of customary international law.

Pakistan has nearly 810 kilometers long coast line. With the acceptance of Pakistan’s claim early this year by UN commission for extension of its continental shelf from 200 to 350 nautical miles, its ‘sea bed territory’ has increased by another 50,000 square kilometers to 290,000 square kilometers. This is more than the combined area of Sind and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) provinces.

An immediate consequence of this extension in Pakistan’s EEZ has been the negative impact on proposed Iran-Oman-India pipeline estimated to cost nearly $ 4 billion and capable of transporting nearly a trillion cubic feet gas over the next two decades. It was planned to be 1,300 kilometers long and 3400 meters under the sea and was to run from Chahbahar in Iran and Ras al Ratan in Oman to Porbandar in India with a compression station on Murray Ridge which now falls in our extended EEZ. Routing of the pipeline further south in deeper waters would disturb the cost-benefit ratio and pose complex technical challenges.

In 1995, Pakistan had blocked a proposed deep-sea pipeline from Oman to India because it crossed our EEZ. This forced India to adopt a route outside of our previous 200 nautical miles limit of EEZ and for which detailed design, equipment trials and procurement of long lead items were planned during 2013-15. We need to keep an eye on these developments and not be taken by surprise as India might try to dispute our fundamental sovereign rights over the sea bed in the extended EEZ.

India is already violating the spirit of UNCLOS by requiring 24 hours prior notice for ships carrying hazardous and dangerous cargos like oil, chemicals, noxious liquids, and radio-active material to enter its EEZ. In other words it is clearly endeavoring to ‘territorialize’ its EEZ.

Like neighboring Iran and India, Pakistan too has claimed authority to regulate military activities in its EEZ especially where the use of explosives or weapons is involved. In addition, we also require foreign aircraft to file flight plans before transiting over the EEZ. These claims reflect our legitimate security interest in the zone but in order to be taken seriously, it should now be followed by robust military capacity as well as pursuit of objectives through psychological measures, media warfare and legal means to dissuade adversaries from undermining our national interests.

This huge stretch of sea space can justifiably be called the fifth province of Pakistan. It is rich in hydrocarbons, fish, and other sea bed resources.  In order to benefit from this gift of nature, Pakistan must undertake serious initiatives to acquire deep sea exploratory vessels which are capable of probing beneath the sea bed and evaluating data to determine presence of various natural resources.

Unless there is knowledge and information about what lies beneath the seabed under our jurisdiction, there is unlikely to be serious urge to extract this vast reservoir of national wealth. Outsourcing this task to other countries is not the answer as information on complete and authentic data on these resources is too precious to be shared with other countries.

One of the most precious resources under the sea bed in EEZ is the possibility of oil in Indus and Makran basins. The Indus basin constituting delta/fan system is second largest in the world after Bay of Bengal and is analogous to many producing basins in the world in geological terms. Pakistan hasn’t had much success in off-shore drilling in the past though efforts have been made by such drilling firms as Sun Oil Company, Wintershall, Husky, Occidental, Total, PPL, Shell, and Eni which in all drilled about twelve wells. But as technology improves, one can hope for a better success rate.

Sea food is another precious resource where our fish production in the marine sector, extending up to 35 nautical miles from the coast, is nearly 70 percent whiles the remaining 30 percent is obtained from inland sector. There is no reliable data on the quantum of fish resource beyond 35 nautical miles limit in the EEZ which is routinely transgressed by modern ‘floating factory’ type fishing trawlers from other countries.

Pakistan’s Maritime Security Agency (MSA) frequently  apprehends Indian fishermen who intrude into Pakistani waters but its reach and capacity against ‘big time’ thieves operating further south of the coast is severely constrained.  MSA does not have sufficient air surveillance assets to monitor the activities in EEZ, nor does it have enough surface vessel resources to effectively police the area once intruders have been reported.

The problem is compounded by unscrupulous interest groups residing in the city’s posh areas who regularly pass on movements of surveillance aircraft to alert erring fishing vessels. Since MSA has the entire responsibility of the country’s coastlines in terms of strategic security, as well as law enforcement within EEZ, it must be beefed up to measure up to the assigned task.

Our EEZ is located in close proximity to Straits of Hormuz which centuries ago was called western ‘entrepot’ of the Indian Ocean by the Portuguese. The other ‘entrepot’, or a centre to which good are brought for import and export and for collection and distribution, was Malacca Strait.

While this huge area offers opportunities to explore additional resources, its unique geographical proximity also poses challenges in the form of threats which could imperil our national security. These threats could emanate from inter-state territorial disputes, political instability, piracy, dumping of toxic waste, human smuggling, drugs and arms smuggling and transnational crimes including maritime terrorism such as the blowing up a fishing boat by Indian coast guard in the recent past.

As the world at large focuses sharply on environmental issues, we too need to make an effort to keep our surrounding seas clean and healthy. It is common knowledge in the marine industry that dumping of toxic waste and operational discharges from tankers are the most significant chronic and continuous sources of polluting the oceans and causing ‘sub-lethal toxicity’ for both human and marine life which induces generic damage even in low concentrations.

Guarding our national interest in the EEZ is a huge challenge but so are the benefits due to its size and enormity of resources. It would make sense to chalk out a comprehensive strategy for exploration of resources both beneath the surface and under the sea bed, complete with its surveillance and defense and sooner the better.