Code Red for Africa’s Blue Economy

Fisherman on sandy beach walking towards a canoe on the sea

UN Secretary-General António Guterres said that the 2021 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report was a code red for humanity. The alarm bells are deafening, and the evidence is irrefutable”. It is clear to all that the planet is in a climate crisis, but what is less well known is that there is also an oceans crisis. In particular, Africa faces devastating consequences if it does not implement sustainable blue economic policies very soon.

When we see clear-cutting of forests or strip mining of large areas, most of us want a call to action. Many of us feel that these activities are not sustainable and support policies to restrict them. Unfortunately, equally disturbing practices take place in the deep seas and most of us are not even aware of them. For example, more than half of all key marine biodiversity areas are not protected; ocean dead zones (areas that lack enough oxygen to support marine life) are rising at an alarming rate, from 400 in 2008 to some 700 in 2019; and less than 2% of national research budgets are allocated for marine science.

Africa is losing precious mangrove areas (vital for marine nurseries). The cold Benguela Current that flows along the southwest African coast from South Africa to Angola, provides essential nutrients for fish production in those countries. Should that current warm up due to climate change, Namibia’s fishing industry will be in jeopardy. Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing is all too common and most countries in Africa find it hard to enforce their maritime laws. 

Until recently, the world’s coastal and marine areas have been thought of as limitless resources and places to store our waste. The results have ranged from degraded coastal habitats, marine pollution, negative impacts from man-made climate change and overfishing. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), some 57% of the world’s fish stocks are fully exploited and another 30% are over-exploited. This is important as marine fisheries generally contribute some US$ 270 b annually to the world economy, according to the FAO. Clearly, our current uses of “the blue economy” are not sustainable. 

Of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals, goal Number 14 (Life Below Water) is the least funded. Only 0.01% of Official Development Assistance (ODA) directed toward SDGs goes toward this goal, and even private investment and funding from philanthropic organizations comes in at just over half of one per cent (0.56%) of SDG funding, grossly inadequate to meet Africa’s blue economy needs. It is vital that the international community face up to the code red challenges of Africa’s blue economy to scale up the flow of finance toward this challenge and roll out innovative finance mechanisms such as blue bonds where appropriate.

The blue economy “movement” was strengthened by the African Union’s adoption of the 2050 Africa Integrated Maritime Strategy in 2012 and is being taken forward through the AU’s Africa Blue Economy Strategy, adopted in 2020. Indeed, the African Union has correctly called the blue economy the “new frontier of the African Renaissance”. This is key as 37 nations in Africa have coasts and some 90% of the region’s trade is conducted by sea. Maritime zones under African jurisdiction total over 10 million square kilometres with vast potential for off-shore and deep-sea mineral exploitation. Clearly coastal and marine resources will play essential roles as a source of food, energy, and economic development for the foreseeable future. 

The blue economy shows much promise, including finding ways to pursue a low carbon path of economic development that would include creating employment opportunities and reducing poverty.  Indeed, the World Bank believes that “blue growth, or environmentally sustainable economic growth based on the oceans, is a strategy of sustaining economic growth and job creation necessary to reduce poverty in the face of worsening resource constraints and climate crisis.” 

Given the high stakes, it is essential that Africa’s blue economy policies and goals be expanded. Just as sustainable development green initiatives show promise, so too could blue economy projects and activities. It is imperative that all states adopt strategies to achieve enhanced wealth and wellbeing from the oceans in the coming years. Whether blue economy outcomes will live up to their promise is another matter.

There is little doubt that short term gains will be made from, for example, increased aquaculture and advances in fishing technologies. Yet the long-term sustainability of these endeavours will require concerted effort and significant political will. Finally, as many of the challenges such as marine pollution or maritime security respect no borders, African countries will have to find more ways to boost regional cooperation to find solutions.   

Please join us on 30 March 2022 at 1 pm for a symposium on Africa’s Blue Economy which will provide new and innovative ways of looking at Africa’s blue economy and how to change Code Red to Code Blue. This event is jointly organised by SOAS Department of Economics, SOAS Centre for Global Finance, SOAS Centre of African Studies, The Royal African Society,  and The Blue Economy Research Institute (University of Seychelles). Please register here.

Professor Donald L Sparks is a visiting Fulbright Scholar at SOAS, Emeritus Professor of International Economics at the Citadel in Charleston, SC and Visiting Professor of International Economics at the Management Center Innsbruck, Austria. He is the Director of the Charleston Council for International Visitors. He received his MA and PhD at the School of Oriental and African Studies and his BA from the George Washington University.

This article was originally published on African Arguments on 24 March 2022.

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