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  • Writer's pictureSimon Kaack

The Underwater Gold Rush: Southeast Asia's Stake in Deep-Sea Mining

The coastal sides of islands are visible, while deep seabeds remain hidden from us.

The ocean, covering more than 70% of the Earth's surface, remains one of the most unexplored and enigmatic frontiers. Within its dark depths lie not only fascinating marine life and ecosystems but also vast resources, including minerals and metals essential for our modern world. As terrestrial mineral resources become increasingly scarce, the allure of the deep sea's riches grows, drawing attention to the emerging field of deep sea mining. Southeast Asia is at the forefront of the emerging debate thereof, as the region's waters are believed to be abundant in valuable minerals and metals, sparking interest from governments and corporations alike.

Deep sea mining describes the process of retrieving mineral deposits from the ocean floor. This includes the extraction of metals such as copper, nickel, cobalt, and rare earth elements from polymetallic nodules, seafloor massive sulfides, and cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts. These deposits are typically found at depths ranging from 400 meters to 6,500 meters and are considered critical for various industries, including electric vehicle batteries, wind turbines, and solar panels. As the demand for these technologies grows in the face of climate change, deep sea mining gains significant attention.

Modern technologies, including those for outdoor projects, are dependent on minerals and rare earths.

Focusing on Southeast Asia, the region’s deep sea is thought to hold significant deposits of polymetallic nodules, cobalt-rich crusts, and seafloor massive sulfides. Thus, ASEAN countries, with their strategic locations and extensive maritime zones, are poised to play a crucial role in the global deep sea mining landscape. In this regard, proponents argue that deep sea mining could have a smaller environmental footprint compared to traditional land mining. It's seen as a way to avoid deforestation, land use conflicts, and the pollution associated with terrestrial mining operations.

However, deep sea mining is not without its controversies, primarily due to environmental concerns. The deep sea is a fragile and poorly understood ecosystem. Mining operations can disrupt the seabed, causing sediment plumes that may travel vast distances, affecting water quality and marine life far beyond the mining site. The noise, light, and chemical pollution from mining activities also pose significant risks to deep-sea creatures and habitats. Critics argue that disrupting these untouched ecosystems could have cascading effects, many of which may be irreversible or unforeseen.

In Southeast Asia, a region home to some of the world's most biodiverse coral reefs, mangroves, and marine habitats, these risks weigh even heavier. The deep sea is home to a plethora of unique species, many of which are yet to be discovered. Mining activities threaten to destroy habitats, leading to potential species extinction before they are even known to science. The loss of biodiversity could disrupt ecological balance, with unknown implications for ocean health and resilience. Given the interconnected nature of oceanic ecosystems, the effects of deep sea mining could extend far beyond the immediate mining sites. Additionally, concerns mount about the potential release of toxic substances trapped in the seabed, which could have harmful effects on marine ecosystems and, by extension, on human health through seafood consumption.

When marine ecosystems are destroyed, associated species on the mainland are also affected.

Beyond the environmental dimensions, critics of deep sea mining also highlight socio-economic concerns, particularly the potential impacts on coastal communities and existing industries. The disruption of seabed ecosystems and the associated sediment plumes could have detrimental effects on fisheries, a vital source of food and income for millions worldwide. In Southeast Asia, where coastal communities rely heavily on marine resources for their livelihoods and food supply, the degradation of marine environments could have dire consequences. Thus, calls for greater consideration of intergenerational equity emerge, ensuring that today's actions do not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Looking at possible solutions, it becomes apparent that the regulatory landscape for deep sea mining in Southeast Asia is complex, involving a mix of national jurisdictions and international guidelines. The International Seabed Authority (ISA) oversees deep sea mining in international waters, as it is responsible for regulating mineral-related activities in the international seabed area. The ISA issues licenses for exploration, but as of yet, commercial deep sea mining has not commenced.

However, the regulatory frameworks within exclusive economic zones (EEZs) fall under national authorities. This leaves potential for individual states to process with mining activities that could potentially also harm neighbouring states.  Earlier this year, the Norwegian parliament has voted for an opening of its sea beds to commercial mining activities. Given this global first, it is likely that other states, potentially including those from Southeast Asia, will follow suit. Consequently, the development of a robust regulatory framework that ensures environmentally responsible practices is crucial for avoiding unintended spillover effects.

Communities close to the coast, which are already affected by climate change, suffer particularly from the effects of deep-sea mining.

As technology advances and the demand for critical minerals increases, the interest in deep sea mining is likely to grow. However, it is imperative that this interest is balanced with the need to protect our ocean's ecosystems. The debate over deep sea mining is a testament to the broader conversation about how we utilise and protect our planet's resources. Hence, Southeast Asia is well advised to facilitate ongoing research, transparent regulation, and cooperation with local communities to ensuring that everlasting damage is prevented.



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