A UN report says that by 2050, 91 per cent of the world's coastlines will have been effected by development.
UN issues dire report on oceans
ABU DHABI // Humanity has been settling in coastal areas for millennia. Today, more than half of the world's population lives within 200 kilometres of a shoreline. According to a United Nations report released last month, as populations increasingly encroach on virgin coastal areas, seeking space for new residential developments, ports, tourism and industrial projects, they frequently drive out the terrestrial and marine organisms that keep the oceans alive.
By 2050, 91 per cent of the world's coastlines will have been effected by development, says the report, Stemming Decline of the Coastal Ocean - and we need to rethink the way we use coastal areas or face grim consequences. Experts from the United Nations University's International Network on Water, Environment and Health warn of a looming, potentially "terminal" disaster in several coastal areas "unless we introduce much more effective management immediately".
The report criticises two of the main tools used by governments to protect coastlines - marine-protected areas and environmental-impact assessments - and calls instead for an approach that looks at the well-being of entire ecosystems rather than particular locations or species. The UN makes specific mention of large offshore developments in the UAE. The university has first-hand knowledge of the Dubai experience from its partnership with the developer Nakheel, to design and carry out a long-term environmental monitoring programme and sustainable management plan for the waters surrounding the company's man-made islands. Although the project is in only its second year, the scientists have been able to draw parallels between Dubai and other areas struggling to preserve their marine environment.
"It is already apparent to us that, despite the enormous differences in environment, economy and culture, there are similar problems in effectiveness of coastal management in Dubai and in the Caribbean," says the report. "Administrative structures impede cross-sectoral as well as cross-jurisdictional collaboration, and there is widespread lack of awareness of the ecological characteristics of coastal marine ecosystems."
But problems with the marine environment are far from limited to the Gulf or the Caribbean. The issue is global. "Current management practices are ineffective and to continue them will endanger coastal economies and ecosystems that support over one half of the world's population," says the report. The UN mentions good examples of management strategies, in Alaskan fisheries, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and smaller protected areas in the Philippines. However, these examples of best practice need to be replicated across the world and without delay, say the scientists.
Businesses and government partnerships can sometimes be "powerful allies in favour of coastal development" and policies that integrate land-use strategies with coastal management are desperately needed. Excess nutrients from fertilisers and sewage, persistent organic pollutants, radioactive substances, heavy metals, litter and excessive amounts of sediment comprise 80 per cent of the pollution in the ocean.
Outside Europe and North America, says the report, more than 80 per cent of sewage enters the ocean untreated, introducing nutrients that can result in the decline of fish populations. Activities such as the dredging and filling necessary to create channels, ports and islands can also have a serious impact. Dredging changes the physical and chemical composition of sea water, threatening the health of coral reefs that are highly sensitive to changes in acidity.
Dredging also makes the water turbid, or cloudy; corals find it hard to grow in such environments and, if there are too many particles suspended in sea water, can even die. They are kept alive by tiny algae that live within them. If the algae are not exposed to sunlight, photosynthesis, the process by which light energy is transformed into chemical energy, cannot occur. The UN has issued similar reports before and is critical of some of its own earlier policy recommendations. In particular, it says, environmental impact assessments (EIA), used to study the potential negative impacts of proposed developments, need to be refined. The report says that many of these have failed because developers have hired commercial contractors to carry out the assessment.
"Vested interests of both parties can result in an assessment that addresses key environmental issues minimally," it says. "Review of EIAs by regulatory agencies themselves can suffer if political factors are pushing the outcome in a given direction and mandatory independent and external review by appropriately qualified scientists can improve the process." Another approach has been to establish marine protected areas. Globally, there are about 4,600 such areas, covering 1.4 per cent of the world's coastal shelf. However, the report dismisses most of these areas as "paper parks".
They are, it says, "legal creations, may have management staff, usually have detailed regulations governing their use, but there is little if any enforcement of regulations. "As a consequence, the deterioration of the coastal environment goes on as rapidly inside most marine protected area boundaries as it does outside and the effort to establish and then to maintain protected sites is largely in vain."