Written statement to Parliament

Minister for Africa updates Parliament on Diego Garcia

Foreign Office Minister Mark Simmonds updated Parliament on work to protect the environment of the British Indian Ocean Territory

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Mark Simmonds

Foreign Office Minister Mark Simmonds said:

I wish to update the house on our work to protect the environment of the British Indian Ocean Territory and in particular, the island of Diego Garcia which is home to a large UK-US military base.

This Government, and the Government of our most important ally, the United States, values the strategic location of the island of Diego Garcia, and we want to see our partnership there continue.

We also share a deep commitment to the pristine environment of BIOT, and take great steps to minimise the impact of the military presence on Diego Garcia on that environment. This ranges from the troops stationed there regularly taking part in beach clean-ups to remove Indian Ocean flotsam that has washed ashore, through conservation efforts with NGOs like the RSPB to remove rats or invasive plants, to a US investment of over $30m during 14/15 to protect the shoreline from gradual erosion. Diego Garcia military base operates an environmental protection council which coordinates this activity, and the standards governing its behaviour are guided by our own scientific advisers and the most stringent relevant environmental legislation.

One area where we have been working recently with the US to ensure the highest standards of environmental stewardship is in the lagoon of Diego Garcia where we are on a path to recovery and protection of the coral that supports the island above the waves. In April last year it came to our attention that the US vessels moored in the lagoon had been discharging waste water into the lagoon since the establishment of the naval support station there in the early 1980s.

This waste water is treated sewage, and water left over from routine processes like cleaning and cooking. Though the amounts are small in proportion to the size of the lagoon itself, our policy has consistently been that any form of discharge of these substances into the lagoon is prohibited because of clear scientific advice that it would be damaging to coral in the long term. That advice has not changed, and nor has our policy.

I asked my officials to immediately establish the impact of these discharges, and in October 2013, UK scientists concluded that based on the available data, there were elevated levels of nutrients in the lagoon which could be damaging to coral.

Over the period since October, my officials have been working to agree a plan with the US to come into compliance with our no-discharge policy, and I am pleased to say I have now agreed this. The plan will involve expenditure of several million dollars by the US over a period of 3 years to retrofit all of the vessels in the lagoon. The programme of work balances the requirement to maintain operational readiness in the region, meet international security commitments, and deal with the logistical and fiscal challenges such a large scale programme brings with it. A comprehensive joint UK-US study is now also underway to assess and monitor the coral and marine health of the lagoon and ensure that the programme has the desired effect of reducing the levels of nutrients in the lagoon and protecting the coral.

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Published 6 March 2014