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UNESCO warns Australia over health of Great Barrier Reef


Activists paint the message "Reef in Danger" on the side of coal ship Chou San on March 7, 2012 in Gladstone, Queensland, Australia.



UNESCO has warned Australia over development approvals on the Great Barrier Reef, expressing "extreme concern" and warning Canberra the area could be listed as a World Heritage Site in danger.

In a report released Saturday, and cited by the Fairfax media, the world heritage committee said no further major development should go ahead without an assessment of the reef’s overall health.

‘‘Considering the high rate of approvals over the past 12 years, this unprecedented scale of development affecting or potentially affecting the property poses serious concerns over its long-term conservation,’’ the report found.

The report urged Australia not to permit new port and infrastructure development connected to the coal and liquefied natural gas industry in the eastern state of Queensland, which borders on the reef, until a strategic assessment is complete.

The UN says the area could be added to the "List of World Heritage in Danger" if ‘‘threatening’’ developments are allowed to proceed and if Canberra does not give it evidence of substantial progress before Feb. 1.

Environment groups responded to the report by calling for an immediate halt to development around the reef.

Greenpeace spokesman John Hepburn told Radio Australia that the government need to consider the recommendations very closely.

"The UNESCO report is really a damning indictment on the threat posed to the Great Barrier Reef by coal port developments and gas port developments in Queensland," he said, referring to the eastern Australian state where the reef is largely located.

"Really what they are saying is if we continue with business as usual, then they are going to have to list the Great Barrier Reef as in danger."

Another Greenpeace campaigner, Ben Pearson, told the Fairfax media that development was "out of control."

"There are 35 major development applications seeking approval within the next 18 months that would impact on the reef," he said.

"Thankfully UNESCO has recognized the scale of the threat and is calling for urgent action."

Australia's Environment Minister Tony Burke, however, said he was not surprised by UNESCO's finding.

The government was already preparing a comprehensive assessment of the reef, he added.

"This will be by far the largest and most comprehensive and complex assessment undertaken in Australia and it is still in the early stages," Burke said.

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However, he said, a balance was needed between protecting the reef and maintaining tourism in Queensland.

"I reckon anyone who wanted to undo all the tourism operations in the Whitsundays in the name of keeping the area pristine would quite rightly have a lot of people saying, hang on, we want to make sure that something as magnificent as the Great Barrier Reef can be enjoyed and seen by the people of the world as well," he said, Radio Australia reported.

"There is a way of having sustainable development. This report is saying look at the whole area strategically and we agree that is the correct approach."

And the chief politician in Queensland state, Premier Campbell Newman, reportedly said that while he would protect the environment, it would not be at the expense of the state's economic future.

"We are in the coal business. If you want decent hospitals, schools and police on the beat we all need to understand that," he said, according to the Herald Sun newspaper.

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