Seizing the Blue Economy approach in the Western Indian Ocean Region

Mahe:  I am delighted to be here today, to address the opening of this important convention in a year that is critical to humanity's sustainable development aspirations. Please allow me to take a moment to thank the Government of Seychelles for hosting this gathering. As a Small Island Developing State, and therefore one of 52 nations at the forefront of the battle to adapt to climate change and adopt a new Blue Economy approach, there could perhaps be no more appropriate location for the discussions that will take place over the next few days.

The Nairobi Convention is a regional convention, but what a region - covering over 8,000 kilometres of coastline from Somalia to South Africa and stretching thousands of kilometres out over sparkling waters to encompass Comoros, Madagascar, Mauritius, Seychelles and Reunion. Within this region, over 60 million people live along the coast, many of them deriving their livelihoods from the ocean.

It is no mean task to manage such a massive area, and I would like to take the opportunity on this, the near-exact 30th anniversary of the convention's signing, to congratulate all the parties and the secretariat for their hard work on improving the conservation and sustainable management of the coastlines and oceans.

The convention has carried out many important tasks down the years: establishing key partnerships with governmental and non-governmental organizations and keeping coastal and marine environment issues on the policy agenda. In the last few years, all the countries in the region initiated the implementation of integrated coastal zone management, and Western Indian Ocean countries have formulated environmental impact assessment policies and legislation.

Partnerships with major international non-governmental organizations under the Consortium for the Conservation of Coastal and Marine Ecosystems in the Western Indian Ocean have established innovative marine and coastal programmes and projects that demonstrate real potential for sustainable community-based marine and coastal management, restoring habitats and fish stocks.

I applaud this work, which proves the commitment of all concerned. This commitment will need to be redoubled in the years to come, a sentiment reflected in the theme of this meeting, which looks forward to the next 30 years of conservation and sustainable growth.

An ecological haven facing growing threats

The beautiful WIO region is one of the least ecologically disturbed areas of global ocean. It hosts thousands of species of fish, marine turtles, sharks, birds and corals, and diverse coastal forests, mangrove forests and sea grass beds.  However, these coastal and marine environments have started showing signs of degradation as a result of climate change and other human activities, threatening ecosystems and livelihoods.

In Kenya, for example, from 1985 to 2010, approximately 18 per cent of mangroves were lost - removing parts of a natural barrier to coastal storms and a haven of biodiversity. Or consider crustaceans, which make up a large proportion of the fisheries in the region. A 2011 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization and the Southwest Indian Ocean Fisheries Commission found that most of the crustacean stocks in the region are fully exploited or overexploited.

Then we face urbanization pressures, most markedly in main centres such as Mombasa, Dar es Salaam, Maputo and Durban. Consequently, pollution in some key areas is degrading water and sediment quality, resulting in a loss of biological diversity, problems for human health and a reduction in fish stocks.

And we have likely yet to see the worst impacts.

With the exception of Kenya, it is estimated that by 2020, 50 per cent of the populations of the Western Indian Ocean's mainland countries will live within the coastal zone. Economic activities are also expected to intensify, particularly in the areas of maritime trade, mineral extraction from the coast, oil and gas exploration, coastal tourism and bio-prospecting. While these sectors present enormous economic opportunities, the potential impacts may reduce natural capital.

The vulnerability of Small Island Developing States

Then, of course, we have the specific climate challenges faced by Small Island Developing States (SIDS), such as our gracious host today. Climate change-induced sea-level rise in the world's 52 SIDS - estimated to be up to four times the global average - continues to be the most pressing threat to their environment and socio-economic development, with annual losses at the trillions of dollars due to increased vulnerability.

In all SIDS regions, coral reefs are impacted by rising sea surface temperatures. The global net loss of coral reef cover - around 34 million hectares over two decades - will cost the international economy an estimated US $11.9 trillion, with SIDS especially impacted by the loss.

Climate change will also have a compounding effect on several socio-economic sectors in SIDS. For example, fisheries play a significant role in the economy, livelihoods and food security of SIDS, estimated at up to 12 per cent of total Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in some nations.

Yet climate change is expected to bring further negative impacts on fisheries, posing a clear challenge to meeting the nutritional needs of growing populations, damaging livelihoods and hampering the sustainable development agenda.

Tourism will also be impacted, and I am sure I do not need to point out to the key roles fisheries and tourism play to many of the nations party to the Nairobi Convention.

The importance of SIDS and the need for a way forward was, thankfully, recognized last year in the Samoa Pathway - adopted by UN Member States, all of which recognized the need to support and invest in these nations so they can achieve sustainable development.

The Samoa Pathway recognizes that financing from all sources is critical for the sustainable development of SIDS. At the Samoa conference, nearly 300 partnerships between governments, businesses and civil society organizations from all over the world were registered to support SIDS, bringing the total value of these commitments to over USD $1.9 billion.

I look forward to further developments in this area.

The Blue Economy

The Samoa Pathway is, however, just one element of the wider approach required as we look at the development trajectory of the next thirty years. That approach is the Blue Economy, which UNEP highlighted as one of four themes for action that would make SIDS the economies of the future in its GEO SIDS Outlook - alongside technological leapfrogging, giving priority to island culture and reconnecting with nature.

The Blue Economy advocates the same outcome as the Green Economy, namely improved human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities.

There is no doubt that oceans drive economic growth and bring a host of benefits to society: approximately 350 million jobs are linked to oceans, the international trade in fish products spans 85 nations and involves an estimated $102 billion per year, and about $9 billion is made in ecotourism related to coral reefs.

Currently, the economic value of the goods and services provided by the marine and coastal ecosystems in the Western Indian Ocean region is estimated at over $25 billion on an annual basis, excluding South Africa, with fisheries and tourism being the two main direct contributors to the economies of the region. In 2014, South Africa predicted that the oceans have the potential to contribute up to 177 billion rand to its economy (US$ 14.8 billion) by 2033, as opposed to 54 billion rand in 2010, and create over one million jobs in the process.

This, however, is likely the tip of the iceberg, as much of the value of ecosystems is not captured in development planning or national accounts.

The ecological health and economic productivity of marine and coastal ecosystems can be boosted by shifting to a more sustainable economic paradigm that taps their natural potential - from generating renewable energy and promoting eco-tourism, to sustainable fisheries and transport.

For example, at a global level the potential economic gain from reducing fishing capacity to an optimal level and restoring fish stocks - currently 32 per cent of the global stocks are estimated to be overexploited, depleted or recovering from depletion - is in the order of $50 billion per year.

Then there is the renewable energy potential. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the technically exploitable potential for marine-based renewables, excluding offshore wind, could reach 7,400 EJ per year, exceeding current global energy needs. However, marine-based renewable energy represented less than 1 percent of all renewable energy production in 2008. Marine-based renewable energy also carries significant potential for green job creation.

Taking advantage of this abundant source of natural energy would go a long way toward resolving one of the key vulnerabilities of SIDS - that of energy dependence. As of 2008, island states spent over US $90 million daily for more than 900,000 barrels of oil. The high cost of imported energy causes a severe drain on limited financial resources, while fluctuating oil prices have serious repercussions on their national economies.

Progress being made

As the above examples show, the Blue Economy can be achieved while reducing the decline in the ecological health and economic productivity of the world's oceans by shifting to a greener, more sustainable economic paradigm in which human well-being and social equity are improved.

We are already seeing movement in this direction in the region.

The Government of Seychelles has adopted the Blue Economy Concept. Mauritius has the Ocean Economy and the Republic of South Africa has developed Operation PHAKISA to unlock the economic potential of the ocean in a sustainable manner.

In Tanzania and Mozambique, projects to produce ethanol and biomass to fuel power generators are gaining support, while Seychelles has plans for renewable sources to contribute at least 15 per cent to power needs by 2030. The French island of Reunion is targeting 50 per cent renewable energy for local electricity needs by 2020, and a further goal of 100 per cent of all energy use by 2030. And in Mauritius, mangrove cover has increased by about 167 per cent due to restoration initiatives.

This is encouraging, but we still need to develop a greater understanding of the value of ocean and coastal resources, create valuation and accounting tools for this blue capital, and look at management options for sustainable economic growth.

Without the evidence of the benefits of blue capital, the desire to display short-term gains through partial indicators such as gross domestic product will win out over sustainable long-term growth based on functioning ecosystems.

Bringing this evidence to the table is a key focus of UNEP's work, and I invite every nation to work with us to understand fully just how much the oceans and coastlines contribute to economies.

A global contribution

As we look to a future in which the world population will swell to over nine billion by 2050, simply hoping that the oceans can keep on giving is not a sensible strategy.

You have done so much already, but we must all strive to do more for the oceans in this year when the international community will finalize the Sustainable Development Goals and aim to reach a strong agreement on mitigating and adapting to climate change.

The work of the Nairobi Convention will be critical to these global processes.

The vision of the convention is "a Prosperous Western Indian Ocean region with healthy rivers, coasts and oceans" - a vision that is in support of the Sustainable Development Goals, especially the goal to sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources.

Your Strategic Action Programme brings a frame of reference for collaborative action to address the challenges of sustainable management of the coastal and marine resources of the region, and your Climate Change Strategy responds to the call to undertake urgent actions to address climate change.

Together, these actions can drive forward a blue economy and prevent climate change from undermining it - enabling coastal communities, economies and marine ecosystems to become more resilient and grow in a sustainable manner.

During these deliberations, you will exchange ideas and, I hope, come up with fresh approaches on how to take further action within and without the framework of the convention - be it consistent long-term policies, targeted financial support from governments to overcome technical barriers, or incentives such as grants, subsidies and tax credits to encourage private investment.

I wish you a successful meeting, and look forward to hearing your thoughts on how we, as a region and as a global community, can make the Blue Economy a reality.

  • Seizing the Blue Economy Approach in the Western Indian Ocean Region: speech by Achim Steiner Speech to Nairobi Convention COP, 25 June 2015.
  • 8th Conference of Parties Meeting for the Nairobi Convention: access documentation, outcomes, here