#04 2022

Participating in UN meeting as part of the Global Ocean Observing System team

By Prof Juliet Hermes, Manager, Egagasini Node

I was invited to take part in the twenty-second meeting of the United Nations Open-ended Informal Consultative Process on Oceans and the Law of the Sea, which has a focus on ocean observing. I formed part of the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS) team and presented in the session on international cooperation and coordination in advancing ocean observing and addressing related challenges.  

The Informal Consultative Process was established by the General Assembly in 1999 to facilitate its annual review of developments in ocean affairs and the law of the sea. Annual meetings are held with a different topic of focus each year.  

It was both an honour and a highlight of my career to be invited to talk at the United Nations! In preparing the talk I reached out to many colleagues in Africa to get their input and it was a good way to reconnect with them.

Fostering collaborations 

It was also a fantastic opportunity to connect in person with key ocean observing specialists from around the globe. These included David Legler (NOAA and Chair of the GOOS Observation Coordination group) and many of his team from the Global Ocean Monitoring and Observing who support us in many of our ocean observing activities; Emma Heslop, Director of GOOS, with whom I work on different international committees; Michelle Heupel, Director of the Australian Integrated Marine Observing System (a very large and well-funded equivalent to SAEON), who is helping to get philanthropic funding for COLab (Coastal Lab in a box) and has assisted SAEON with database programs – we hope to continue with this partnership; Sabrina Speich, Chair of the Ocean Observing Panel for Climate; and Toste Tahanue and Aanya Waite, co-chairs of GOOS.

The meeting was a key event for successful networking and fostering collaborations for SAEON’s Egagasini and Elwandle nodes, as well as for the South African Polar Research Infrastructure (SAPRI) and the Shallow Marine and Coastal Research Infrastructure (SMCRI).

Key outcomes of the meeting included:  

  There are a range of applications for ocean observations to help create benefits for society and support industry and the blue economy.

  We should strive for continual improvement in engaging and delivering to stakeholders by measuring our progress against our goals.

  Benefits of ocean observing can be quantified. A benefit to cost ratio study of the Integrated Marine Observing System (IMOS) revealed $4.70 of benefit for every dollar IMOS and our partners invest.

  The new Digital Oceanography capacity developed for Ocean Prediction maximises the value of ocean observing for society and invites users in the advocacy for sustained observations. Ocean prediction is now instrumental in the science-policy dialogue.

  • A sustained observing system for climate which is better designed and fit for purpose:
    • enables human society and the living system to adapt sustainably and develop solutions.
    • creates new opportunities and empowers growth of sustainable blue economies.
  • Nations, as stakeholders and funders, need to support the co-design, implementation and sustainability of such an observing system.

Synopsis of Juliet’s presentation   

Challenges and successes in international partnering for regional ocean observation  

At home in South Africa we say it takes a village to raise a child – an entire community of people must interact with children for them to experience and grow in a safe and healthy environment. In the same vein it will take a global community to raise a sustainable ocean observing system. No scientist or scientific organisation in the world can work alone without collaboration.

We know this and yet putting it into practice is difficult. We are constrained by funding, capacity, time, even COVID, but also by inherent biases, something that is so much more difficult to talk about. For successful partnerships across nations, particularly south/north, we need to approach things differently, to see things differently.

Ocean observations have progressed significantly in the past few decades, but there are still challenges and many countries do not have ocean observing systems. We need to integrate from open ocean to coasts and expand coastal observations by improving support of nations developing ocean observing capabilities.

It is also essential to ensure that observations reach service providers that provide accessible information required by the users in society. Observational data collected by non-governmental organisations and private companies or industries also need to be incorporated in national/regional observing systems.

More challenging is how best the observing system should adopt new observing methods that are more affordable, easier to deploy and open the doors to more nations to use them. There is a need to evaluate what is needed, not by technology or platform, but by variable and need. This is when regional/international partnerships can diverge if they have not been meaningfully co-created.  

The best laid plans of mice and men  

Sharing of data, knowledge, capacity, technology, methodologies and infrastructure is the only way to achieve a global ocean observing system. The focus here is on the Indian Ocean observing system, IndOOS. Established in 2006, IndOOS is a multinational network of sustained oceanic measurements that underpin understanding and forecasting of weather and climate for the Indian Ocean region and beyond. This is essential as almost one-third of the global population live in the Indian Ocean rim countries, many of which depend on rain-fed agriculture, which is tightly linked to monsoon rainfall. These countries are extremely vulnerable to extreme weather events and climate change.

IndOOS relies on regional partnerships, not just one or two, but several nations and agencies coming together. The United States and India recently signed an agreement and launched the joint oceanographic data portal, opening access to the Ocean Moored Buoy Network for the northern Indian Ocean (OMNI) mooring data, a huge achievement and beneficial to all partners. The next step is to make the data from moorings in the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) accessible in order to improve our extreme event forecasts.

It does not matter how well you plan for something; what really counts is how you respond to unplanned issues. We need to take that into account with the co-design approach, and partnerships are important for this. Post COVID, observations in the Indian Ocean are at a critical level, activity is on the decrease, as well as the intensity of deployment. Half of the Argo array is older than five years, with a large gap developing in the West. Indicators for the Global Drifter array and high-resolution XBT network are in the same state, and the RAMA (Research Moored Array for African-Asian-Australian Monsoon Analysis and Prediction) array is at 10% activity. This will have severe implications for our ability to forecast extreme events such as cyclones.

Continuing to strengthen regional and international partnerships is essential to sustainably redeploy the observing platforms. In addition, special focus needs to be placed on access to EEZs for observing system components and on capacity, resource and coordination development of rim countries. Ultimately, a key factor affecting investment in scientific research and the success of co-design, and where GOOS and IOC UNESCO are in a unique position to be able to support, is the level of appreciation by national governments and stakeholders of the importance of the marine sector to the country’s economy and resources. Hopefully the outcomes from this informative consultation can begin to work towards that.

If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. 

Partnerships are not just the sharing of infrastructure and data but also the sharing of knowledge. Opting not to use (and document) best practices sets up barriers to capacity development and technology transfer. It is vital to look towards coordinated international efforts such as the GOOS/IODE Ocean Best Practices System, if we want to ensure that our observations are interoperable, reproducible and reliable.

We also need to acknowledge that requirements on ocean observing vary depending on mission, ocean environment and capabilities, including human and technological capacities, as well as the needs of society, which vary across institutions and countries. It is important to take this into account at the start of a programme or partnership.

Successful collaborations often involve some sort of capacity development or knowledge sharing, a meaningful engagement that contributes to the global ocean observing system while aiding developing countries to manage their resources. Capacity building for Africa by Africans may look different to training Africans in western-led research methodologies and we need to see a shift in paradigm from building capacity in Africa to building on African capacity.  

“But we all know that only those who make the ocean their home and love it, can really claim it as their own. Conquerors come, conquerors go, the ocean remains, mother only to her children. This mother has a big heart though; she adopts anyone who loves her.” – Epeli Hau’ofa 

Successful partnerships co-design from the beginning, considering the needs and capabilities of all partners and allowing for knowledge exchanges in all directions. The roles of partners must be clearly defined and agreed upon.

One way of thinking about co-design is that it is about challenging the imbalance of power held by individuals who make important decisions about other people’s lives and livelihoods, often with little to no involvement of the people who will be most impacted by those decisions. Co-design seeks to change that through prioritising relationships, using creative tools and building capability. It uses inclusive convening to share knowledge and power to change the concept of making decisions for people with lived experience to making decisions with people with lived experience; seeing marginalised people as a burden to seeing marginalised people as resilient, creative and capable.

GOOS is pioneering this approach through its vision2030, with co-design workshops and Ocean Decade programmes that are being run. The recently produced UNESCO-IOC Ocean Decade Africa Roadmap also maps out regional cooperation to ensure successful growth in Africa’s ocean-observing systems.

The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination  

As we expand the ocean observing systems in coastal regions and look at regional international partnerships, we need be innovative – to look at affordable and portable packages of instruments and methods for standardised coastal oceanographic studies. Through this we can break the false perception that “high-end” facilities are required (research vessel, laboratory and instrumentation). Good science can be done cheaply and portably.

CoLAB (Coastal Lab in a box) is aiming to fill this gap. It is being co-created by a group of scientists from resourced and under-resourced countries. At a CLIVAR/GOOS/POGO workshop on observing coastal and marginal seas in the Western Indian Ocean, East African countries discussed and shared their requirements for observations, what and why they want to observe and how they envisage doing it.

Once they have this information, what are their next steps? Although there are regional programmes with long-term coastal observations, there is no global coordinating body aside from the tide gauge network. To establish governance at the national level and support regional collaborations, GOOS, through its 2030 vision, is taking steps to support national focal points and the emergence of national committees. This will strengthen the reach of national needs into global observing.

Data is not information, information is not knowledge, knowledge is not understanding, understanding is not wisdom.  

There are numerous other challenges to improving and sustaining ocean observations. They generally require collaborative arrangements, funded largely through research grants, with limited sustained government support, particularly in developing countries. The social impact requires that the investments made in ocean observations are validated by the widest possible use of the data for research, forecasting, analyses, assessments and applications. That is only possible if the data follow the FAIR principles.

In some cases, where developing countries’ governments are involved, they request the observing agencies or institutions to get revenue from the products they develop, thus they are obliged to charge to provide data.

Issues around data are sensitive, but if I could tackle just one it would be that of parachute or colonial science, with international scientists coming and taking observations in under-resourced countries’ coastlines and then making the data so difficult to access that the regional scientists never get it. Or where the observational design has not been optimal for the region’s needs, where the papers are published without regional co-authors, or regional co-authors are just added as a courtesy.

Yes, this still happens. Toste suggests we should redefine science excellence and perhaps this would be one step to changing the current status quo. Another is ensuring that international funding programmes monitor end results.

What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.  

We have heard a lot about the value chain of ocean observations, as well as the disconnect between the international legal and policy framework and the reality of global ocean science collaboration, capacity development, data sharing and technology transfer. Building capacity through monitoring will build scientific literacy, which in turn will enable all countries to engage purposefully in the global dialogue. Sustained observing requires a coordinated, collaborative and culturally appropriate process, incorporating indigenous and local knowledge, with long-term resourcing, that meets identified local, national and regional needs. Given the influence this will have on economic stability for the impacted countries, it is essential that the long-term resourcing be, at the least, a combination of international and local.

Bureaucracy poses another challenge for the development of ocean observing systems, particularly from regional and international initiatives, with foreign projects avoiding countries with complex licencing procedures. This is worse for countries protective of foreign initiatives, especially as there is often a lack of communication and co-development of the work, with the data often not being given back to the coastal states, perpetuating the protective behaviour of these countries.  

Understanding the key aspects of the ocean economy and the use of ocean observations for this is essential and needs a deeper knowledge than is currently available. This information should be a key message for enhanced, sustained funding from governments. Under-resourced countries must develop the necessary policies to invest in science and technology so they have the capacity to drive new technology. Oftentimes, experts in the region are forced to adapt to requirements of external funding sources to obtain funding rather than driving observations based on the countries’ needs.

Individually we are a drop, together we are a fit-for-purpose ocean observing system


I feel it is important to mention that we have not heard much on the inclusion of youth. I think it was a missed opportunity not to have early-career researcher representation. As we grow the ocean observing system we also need to support and grow a diverse generation of transformed and informed ocean observers; the sustainability of the system relies on them.

We need to continue to foster and grow diverse and inclusive partnerships, sharing ubuntu, to create valuable observing systems for societal benefit globally, regionally and nationally in resourced and under-resourced countries. By doing this we can provide a unified message to governments and funding systems. I am excited by the tremendous effort to support this that we have heard about during these informal discussions. I just hope that those nations not represented in person here are able to hear these important messages.

The meeting presented a valuable opportunity to connect in person with key ocean observing specialists from around the globe

The meeting was a key event for successful networking and fostering collaborations for the Egagasini and Elwandle nodes, as well as for the South African Polar Research Infrastructure (SAPRI) and the Shallow Marine and Coastal Research Infrastructure (SMCRI)