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Will India’s deep dive for seabed minerals boost its economy?

Reuters Chennai | Updated on December 05, 2018 Published on December 05, 2018

Govt to pump in more than $1 billion to test deep sea technologies, according to Earth Sciences Ministry

In the 1870 Jules Verne classic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, underwater explorer Captain Nemo predicted the mining of the ocean floor’s mineral bounty — zinc, iron, silver and gold.

India is catching up with that only now, as it prepares to unearth treasures down below, aiming to boost its economy. The floor of the world’s seas is scattered with vast beds of black potato-shaped polymetallic nodules comprising copper, nickel, cobalt, manganese, iron and rare-earth elements.

These natural goodies are key to making modern gadgets, from smartphones and laptops to pacemakers, hybrid cars and solar panels.

Eyeing the ocean

As expanding technology and infrastructure fuel global demand for these resources more and more countries, including manufacturing powerhouses India and China, are eyeing the ocean.

“We have to depend on ocean resources sooner or later ... there is no other way,” said Gidugu Ananda Ramadass, Head of the country’s deep sea mining project at the National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT) in Chennai.

“For the future of mankind ... the ocean is the only hope,” he said. India, Asia’s third-largest economy, is going full steam ahead in anticipation of the International Seabed Authority (ISA).

Over the next decade, the government plans to pump in more than $1 billion to develop and test deep sea technologies like underwater crawling machines and human-piloted submarines, according to the Earth Sciences Ministry.

Once thought to be too costly and difficult, industrial-scale sea mining could begin as early as 2019. All countries are as yet in the experimental phase, and the ISA is still hammering out regulation and royalty terms for commercial mining.

The prospect has excited India, which depends heavily on China, the world’s biggest producer of elements. China provides about 90 per cent of rare earths, which are used in aviation and defence manufacturing. Experts say India is most interested in copper, nickel and cobalt, as it ramps up clean power generation.

Cobalt, also produced in Democratic Republic of Congo, is used to make batteries that can store energy from renewable sources, including solar and wind.

The dark side

Experts warn that in the absence of a clear international charter, deep sea mining operations could cause irreversible damage to a little understood ecology.

Indian environmentalist Richard Mahapatra fears private players could sound the death knell for Earth’s “final frontier”, which he said has been explored only 0.0001 percent.

The seabed is home to a unique ecology where colonies of organisms and creatures have evolved over millions of years, free of wild currents, sunlight, vibrations and noise which mining would bring, said Mahapatra, Managing Editor of the New Delhi-based science and environment magazine Down To Earth.

The country’s deep ocean exploration programme dates back more than two decades, during which it has been surveying the sea floor and testing environmental impacts, according to the National Institute of Oceanography (NIO) in Goa.

NIO scientist NH Khadge said the upcoming ISA guidelines, which its 168 member states will sign up to, would require contractors to “plan minimum disturbance” at the sea floor.

Published on December 05, 2018
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