The significance of NOWPAP region as a dynamic regional coast cannot be overemphasized enough. Collectively, lands, coastal fringes and seas provide the natural resource base for economic activities that include agriculture, aquaculture and fisheries, energy development, tourism, marine trade, shipping and others. River basins play an important role as a source of water that sustain economies and natural capital in a watershed ecosystem. Coastal areas are also home to a rich variety of natural habitats, resources and major cities, which are among most populated in the world. River basins and their adjoining coastal areas are increasingly vulnerable to human pressure. Irrigation and hydropower projects have increased salinity in estuaries and lagoons. Deforestation and intensive agriculture have increased sediment, nutrient and toxic pesticide loads in rivers. Untreated household wastewater and toxic industrial chemicals have affected water quality with significant adverse impact on coastal ecosystems.
The historic 1992 Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro urged coastal countries to take an Integrated coastal area and river basin management (ICARM) approach for sustainable use of their riverine and coastal resources. This is also known as the ‘Ridge-to-Reef’ or "Source to Sea" management approach to river coastal and river basin management. An Source-to-Sea approach consolidates analysis, planning, policy-making, and decision-making across sectors and scales. It considers the entire social, ecological, and economic system, from the land area that is drained by a river system to the coastal area and even the open ocean it flows into. UNEP and the Priority Actions Programme Activity Centre of the Mediterranean Action Plan jointly prepared the “Conceptual Framework and Planning Guidelines for Integrated Coastal Area and River Basin Management” in 1999.
ICARM is based on ecosystem-based management, the precautionary and “polluter pays” principles and the ‘carrying capacity’ concept. It also has a social dimension in promoting inter- and intra-generational equity, participatory management, institutional partnerships as well as innovative partnership schemes between civil society groups and local communities.
An integrated coastal and river basin management approach is particularly relevant in the NOWPAP region with its varying environmental, geographic, and socioeconomic features and its high vulnerability to floods, tsunami, earthquakes, tidal waves and other natural disasters. Intensive fisheries, aquaculture, construction, energy development and tourism take place on and near Northwest Pacific coastal areas and in the river basins of the region which is also crisscrossed by heavy maritime traffic.
The ICARM approach can reduce population pressures on Northwest Pacific river basins and coastal areas that have resulted in habitat degradation, pollution and unsustainable use of resources. Unregulated land use has reduced protective buffer zones for coastal communities at risk from natural disasters. Intensive coastal and aquaculture development has had a negative impact on the marine environment manifested in increased toxic algal blooms as well as on human health and coastal tourism. Over-fishing adds to pressure on the ecosystem.
The development and adoption of an integrated approach to coastal and marine environmental planning in a pre-emptive, predictive and precautionary manner and the integrated management of the coastal and marine environment and its resources for the environmental, economic and social well-being of present and future generations, all are key NOWPAP foundational principles.
Accordingly, in 2005, NOWPAP through its Pollution Monitoring Regional Activity Center (POMRAC) initiated work on ICARM.