UNESCO to place Great Barrier in high risk list unless Australia steps up protection efforts

UNESCO to place Great Barrier in high risk list unless Australia steps up protection efforts

The United Nations has frozen plans for placing Australia's Great Barrier Reef on its list of world heritage sites at risk, despite condemning government plans to dump huge volumes of mud and rock in nearby waters as part of the Abbot Point coal port expansion.

The recommendations, published Wednesday by the UN’s heritage and educational body UNESCO, have triggered a wave of polarized reactions, with the government, ocean scientists and the UN body all  claiming victory.

UNESCO feels it has pushed the Australian government to take to heart its concerns. The UN body is especially worried about the federal authorities decision to allow dredging and dumping of 3 million tonnes of dredge spoil in reef waters, as part of the port expansion.

“Given the range of significant threats affecting the property and the conflicting information about the effectiveness of recent decisions and draft policies, significant concern remains regarding the long-term deterioration of key aspects,” the report says.

UNESCO highlights the Great Barrier Reef should be placed on its “in danger” list, but recommends its World Heritage Committee to give the Australian government until 2015 to accelerate efforts to protect the ridge, which has lost over 50% its coral cover over the last 30 years.

The government, in turn, welcomed the “positive” report as it acknowledges the work that both the state and federal governments have been doing over the past year.

The Queensland environment minister, Andrew Powell, told the Brisbane Times he was confident the reef would not be listed.

“We always knew the final decision by UNESCO would be made in 2015, but what [the report] shows is that the campaign of lies and misinformation, the hysteria, the false claims being portrayed by WWF and other conservation groups, is not having the effect that they think it should, because UNESCO simply is not listening,” Powell was quoted as saying.

In 2011, the UN body expressed "extreme concern" about the health of the Great Barrier Reef, a world heritage protected site since 1981. The criticism came after a coal-seam-gas processing hub was approved near Gladstone, and several coal-port developments were proposed along the coast to supply booming demand for raw materials from Asia.

Since then, several companies including Glencore Xstrata (LON:GLEN) and Rio Tinto (ASX:RIO) have either scaled back or abandoned projects in the area, especially after coal prices plummeted.

The World Heritage Committee will make its final decision on the status of the reef at its annual meeting in Doha, Qatar, June 15-25.