Taking charge of Africa’s oceans and blue resources

Elham M. Ali: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 19 July 2022:

We need to mitigate the effects of climate change, transition to clean, renewable energy, close research gap, and seek intra-governmental and regional collaboration. Oceans make life possible. They produce more than half of the world’s oxygen and capture 50 times more carbon dioxide than our atmosphere.

Spanning three quarters of the Earth’s surface, oceans transfer heat from the Equator to the poles, hence regulating our climate and weather patterns. Oceans also contribute to a wide range of vital human needs and activities – from transportation and recreation to food production and the development of medicines.

These are just some of the reasons why ocean sustainability ranks high among most countries’ national developmental plans and are one of the Sustainable Development Goals. (Photo: Elham M. Ali).

It is self-evident that Africans, from Egypt to South Africa and from Guinea to Somalia, must protect our precious blue resources—our oceans and coastlines—whose unique ecosystems sustain the continent’s rich biodiversity, balance the food chain, and support social and economic development.

According to the African Union, the African blue economy is projected to be worth $405 billion by 2030.

Global warming and its climatic consequences are threatening our coastal and marine areas. Extreme climate-related events have already affected millions of people globally, wiped out several different living species, and destroyed a variety of vital ecosystems, creating pervasive social and economic changes worldwide, which in many cases, are not reversible.

By 2035, the regions of Asia, Middle East-North Africa, and sub-Saharan Africa will hold more than 5,000 people per km of coastal length.

What’s at stake for Africa’s coast

Today, Africa needs to confront a three-pronged assault on its oceans and coastal waters.

The first is urban population growth. Among Africa’s 54 countries, 38 are coastal. They boast various and diversified ecosystems, such as lagoons, deltas, mountains, wetlands, mangroves, coral reefs, and shelf zones.

A large percentage of Africa’s urban population, particularly in West Africa, lives in coastal cities. By 2035, the regions of Asia, Middle East-North Africa, and sub-Saharan Africa will hold more than 5,000 people per km of coastal length.

The 2020 estimate of the African coastal population, in thousands within 100-km of the coast, is about 103,900 (44,545 for the North Africa-Middle East region and 59,363 for sub-Saharan Africa).  This estimate is projected to increase from 2020 to 2035 by 18% and 42%, respectively, according to the UN and experts on demographics in Africa. This population growth rate will far surpass the global average that, for example, is merely 1 per cent in Europe.

Rapid coastal population growth, coupled with limited financial and natural resources, will make achieving sustainable development arduous.

On this trajectory, by 2035, approximately 143 million more people living on or near African coasts will be contributing to marine pollution, over-fishing, and loss of natural habitats, exacerbating their exposure to frequent and violent climatic variations.

Sea-level rise is another challenge. A projected one metre sea-level rise will create conditions that lead to significant negative impacts on regional coastal and marine tourism, economies, ecology, and natural habitats.

Situated at sea level, major African cities such as Banjul, Abidjan, Tabaou, Grand Bassam, Sassandra, San Pedro, Lagos, Port Harcourt, and Alexandria are at particular risk

Countries with low-lying lagoon coasts in northern, western, and central Africa— including Egypt, Senegal, The Gambia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Cameroon, Gabon, and Angola—will be highly susceptible to erosion, as sea levels rise.

Storm surges, inundation, and extreme storm events are buffeting Africa’s west coast today. While eastern coastal zones experience calmer conditions throughout the year, sea-level rise and climatic variabilities are imperiling coral and patch reefs, and sea salt intrusions on agricultural lands are reducing quality and quantity of yields.

The sooner we act to mitigate the effects of climate change, by transitioning to clean, renewable energy, the better off we all will be.

A third danger to our coast environments is worrying public health officials and scientists: biogeographical hazards. Growing dense urban populations and teeming industrial development are producing conditions for waterborne public health outbreaks, such as cholera, typhoid, malaria, and more.

As climate change increases precipitation, storm surges, and sea temperatures, flooding and runoff can spread sewage and chemicals into the drinking water supply and cause waste management systems to overflow.

Taking charge of our coasts

The sooner we act to mitigate the effects of climate change, by transitioning to clean, renewable energy, the better off we all will be.

A good first step would be to close the research and data gaps between the north and south. This also would help to expand representation of Africa and African researchers in academia and in global decision-making.

Authority for coastal environmental management has traditionally resided with a few individuals or institutions, with scant political will or capacity to convert research into policy and plans. The scale of today’s threats, however, demand intra-governmental and regional collaboration. Without it, one country’s coastal policy can have unintended consequences for its neighbours.

Plans at all levels should feature a range of adaptation options and alternative pathways and/or transformation pathways. Delay of any kind could mean a dismal future for Africans who live on our coasts and depend on the ocean for their livelihoods.

To protect people from water-related infections, we must provide access to care and disease management; develop and invest in early warning systems to monitor climatic condition changes; enhance water catchment, storage, treatment, and distribution systems; and harden critical infrastructure from floods, storms, and sea-level rise.

Of course, we cannot go it alone. Countries must commit to maintaining global temperatures at around +1.5°C.

We have to lower greenhouse gas emissions, particularly carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels, by 50 per cent by 2030 and to net-zero by 2050.

For every 1°C rise in global temperature, ice at the poles and high altitudes will decrease, desert areas will expand, sea levels will rise, and extreme weather events will become the “new normal.”

If temperatures rise by 2°C, virtually all the glaciers on Earth will melt. At a 7°C increase, most of the human race would disappear.

Africa must work together to safeguard our marine ecosystems and blue resources.

Let us not hesitate to capitalize on the experience, knowledge-sharing, and world-class expertise that forums, such as the Paris Agreement (an agreement within the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change – UNFCCC – dealing with greenhouse-gas-emissions mitigation); the UN Climate Change Conference; the Kyoto Protocol (a treaty that commits state parties to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, based on the scientific consensus); MIT Global Change Forum, the upcoming COP 27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, and others have to offer.

About the auditor

Dr. Elham Mahmoud Ali MSc, MPhil, PhD, ICT, is a Professor of Oceanography and Environmental Sciences at Suez University & National Authority for Remote Sensing and Space Sciences (NARSS), Egypt. She is Coordinating Lead author (CLA) for the IPCC sixth Report – WGII contribution to Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability

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