Who Wants to Live by the Sea?

ICS Conservation Team protecting Alphonse Island’s fragile nearshore ecosystems by retrieving a drifted FAD. Credit: Pep Nogues

By James A Michel
VICTORIA, Republic of Seychelles, Feb 21 2024 – For most of history, only those who made their living from the sea chose to live on the coast. Fear of being battered by storms, not to mention vulnerability to attacks from foreign navies, kept most people inland. Gradually that changed and, along with fisherfolk and their families, the idea of a coastal location became something of a cult. High property prices still reflect its popularity. But is it any longer so desirable?

One reason to question the trend is rising sea levels. Scientists may argue about precise measurements but the rise is unmistakable. The warming of the ocean and melting ice are causing it. And by the end of this century it will be in feet rather than centimetres. Individual houses, the lower reaches of cities and even large swathes of continental nations will be under water. Bangladesh has for long been in the danger zone but so, too, are island communities, especially in the Pacific. Some of these islands have already been lost to the sea.

A second reason why a coastal location is no longer so attractive is marine pollution. Waste materials in the sea and around the coast are ubiquitous. Some are deliberately dumped by municipal bodies without adequate disposal units. In other cases waste is swept ashore, often emanating far away. Even in some of the remote islands of Seychelles, volunteers on beach-cleaning operations collect, literally, tons of rubbish from what should be a pristine shoreline.

What should we be doing to reverse trends and save coastal communities? Answers are not so difficult to find. The best way to slow down the rise of sea levels is to reduce global temperatures. But progress in achieving this is disappointing. In turn, marine pollution can be drastically reduced if poorer nations have the capacity to properly treat waste materials. Easy enough in theory but it calls for a massive transfer of resources from North to South. And there are precious few signs of that.

Discarded fishing nets: Brikole is a business startup in Seychelles which recycles the high volume of redundant fishing nets in the surrounding seas. Credit: Ardfern/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

There are more attainable ways to mitigate the situation but by definition, these generally offer little more than sticking plaster for deep wounds. Building new houses on stilts, raising sea walls, clearing rubbish from beaches on a regular basis, and more effective codes for the fishing industry and other shipping to minimise waste in the sea.

A bigger question is to ask who will take action on much-needed global solutions?

    Each year, thousands of delegates attend the latest climate change extravaganza. The next one will be COP 29, in Azerbaijan. But what is really achieved at these events? Fine words are spoken, with a majority in agreement, but if just China and India opt out there is little that will work.

    Also at a global level, the United Nations encourages its members to meet sustainability targets. To loud acclaim, 2015 saw the launch of 17 Sustainability Development Goals, to be achieved by 2030 at the latest. We’re past the halfway mark now and all seventeen of these flagships are trailing, Goal number 14, ‘Life Below Sea’, is all about the ocean and no one could fault the analysis and selection of targets. The problem remains one of how any of this will be implemented.

    Individual nations are little better. Their leaders make fine speeches, travel around the world, and then promptly go quiet when they have to find the necessary resources to make the changes.

Experience shows that some of the most promising initiatives are not to found in the great debating chambers but closer to the ground. Smaller organisations cannot solve all of the world’s problems but they can make a difference at a local level. NGOs, for instance, have the advantage of being nimble and strongly focused on specific issues. Restoring a mangrove forest, protecting the habitat of marine mammals in a particular location, or reviving a coastal coconut industry can all bring tangible benefits.

Coconut plantation revival: Kentaste is a local company reviving the coconut industry along Kenya’s beaches. Credit: Picture courtesy of Joanne Muchai

Even without the formal status of an NGO, schools and local communities are active in beach-cleaning projects, providing visitors with information and renewing worn-out fencing. These might too easily be dismissed as superficial but, without such interventions, the coastal environment would be all the poorer.

A third source of innovation is to be found in business startups. Entrepreneurs, invariably young, are prepared to invest their own savings in ideas that might one day evolve into profitable businesses but which, in any case, yield outcomes for the common good. Recycling waste products is one example that can be seen in different countries.

Coastal communities need all the help they can get. If national and international bodies are slow to respond, we can’t afford to wait. There are many individuals and groups ready to make a much-needed start. From small beginnings, who knows what will result? They need all the help we can give. The time for waiting is over.

James A Michel is Former President Republic of Seychelles (2004-2016) and Executive Chairman James Michel Foundation.

IPS UN Bureau

 


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