Africa as a continent has been slow to realise this potential, being the only region which has not already staked claims to exploration blocs on the deep seabed which belongs to all of the international community rather than to individual states.
Already, countries and companies in other regions, including China but also many developing states, mostly Pacific islands, have been given 29 exploration licences in specified areas by the International Seabed Authority (ISA), which is the only body which can authorise such exploration. However, they will only be able to start exploration when the ISA has completed negotiations and adopted all the necessary regulations.
South Africa and the rest of the continent are now beginning to wake up to the opportunity, it emerged at a workshop being held at the Department of International Relations and Co-operation (Dirco) in Pretoria to help ensure Africa gets its share of the world’s deep-sea mineral wealth.
This deep seabed, which belongs to the global community, holds mineral treasures dearer than those which lie below the ground on earth’s landmasses, ISA secretary-general Michael Lodge said at the workshop.
It has been organised by ISA, the South African government, the African Union and the Norwegian Government to help prepare South Africa and other African countries for sustainably developing deep seabed minerals in support of Africa’s Blue Economy.
Lodge said the critical first step for Africa was to increase its geophysical capacities so it could find the submerged mineral wealth.
“You can’t hope to benefit until you know what’s there. The first phase of this is the exploration phase. If you miss out on the exploration phase, clearly you’re going to miss out on the next phase.
“So it’s very important to build that capacity to do that kind of deep sea exploration, partner with other institutions that have the capacity, the ships and everything else to do it. And to know what resources you’ve got. “
This was the biggest hurdle, he said. Africa had a pretty good idea of what resources it had on land, and to some extent in its shallow offshore waters.
But with the opening up of the Continental Shelf and beyond, the critical first step for South Africa was to understand what it had in those deeper waters.
That meant building the capacity right from the start, building geophysical capacity, training oceanographers, and making sure universities were teaching the right sort of things.
Lumka Yengeni, South Africa’s representative on the ISA and currently president of its council, was asked at the workshop if South Africa and Africa were not in danger of over-consulting on this issue, and meanwhile being beaten to the mineral riches by others.
Yengeni, who is also South Africa’s ambassador to Jamaica, where the ISA Secretariat is based, said South Africa could not make a decision to participate in deep sea mining before it had consulted all the stakeholders about the opportunities and challenges.
One major concern was the need to ensure that deep sea mining was properly regulated to ensure that the benefits were equally shared.
She said Africa’s land-based minerals had been “looted by foreign powers” with little benefit to Africa and so she hoped that the consultations that were taking place through workshops like the present one would produce an ISA mining code to properly regulate deep sea mining and avoid such a “free-for-all”.
South Africa also had to develop its own deep sea mining legislation to ensure equal benefits.
Mathu Joyini, a deputy director-general in Dirco, noted that African governments had already been instrumental in negotiating the adoption of an equity clause for developing countries in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Lodge explained that this meant that whenever a developed country applied to ISA for a deep sea exploration licence, it had to propose two claims of equal estimated commercial value.
ISA would then give one claim to the applicant, and bank the other one for developing countries.
“The law of the sea gives a huge benefit to developing countries because it means that developing countries can take one of these sites which has already had millions of dollars of exploration invested in it,” he said.
A number of those banked sites had already been taken by small island developing states in the Pacific which had partnered with exploration companies.
“What has not happened in my view, unfortunately, is that no African state or group of states has yet taken advantage of these provisions. And I would very much like that to happen. And that’s what we are trying to encourage through this programme of workshops.”
Lodge added, though, that one should not underestimate the challenges of deep sea mining which had already been a 50-year project. The potential of deep sea minerals had been realised in the 1960s when it was considered they would be quick and easy to recover. In fact it was as “as least as difficult as going to the moon”.
“It’s a tremendous investment in technology. We’re talking about minerals that are 5,000 metres deep. The point is that the deep seabed contains more nickel, cobalt, copper and manganese than everything we know about on land. Much more. There is enough on the seabed to last us hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
“And given the tremendous demand for these minerals for renewable energy and the revolution that’s taking place right now in energy supply, the day is coming when these minerals are economic to recover. Also, when the technology has developed, so that it’s possible to recover them. “
So he said the issue for the ISA was to ensure that these resources were not just taken by technologically-advanced countries and that the mistakes of the past were not repeated.
The aim of ISA and UNCLOS was to ensure equitable exploitation of deep sea minerals but there was still a huge capacity gap, which was why ISA was holding workshops like the present one to share the necessary knowledge.
“And to make sure that countries like South Africa are positioned to take advantage of this next phase of mineral development.”
He said that with its long history of mining, South Africa was well-placed to take advantage of deep seabed mining.
Apart from ensuring proper and equitable development of deep seabed minerals, the other main mandate of the ISA is ensuring that deep sea mining does not harm the marine environment.
Lodge said deep sea mining was the only example of a regulating authority which had been put in place before the activity took place. ISA began operating in 1994, the same year that UNCLOS entered into force, even though it had been adopted in 1982.
The current workshop in Pretoria is the second in a series of five taking place in each of Africa’s regions. DM