Blue economies: turning sunken costs into sunken treasure

2016-06-08

Promoting a maritime economy – also referred to as the blue economy – should become a fundamental anchor for development plans in Africa. The African Union’s (AU) Africa’s Integrated Maritime Strategy 2050 (2050 AIM Strategy) mentions, for instance, billions of US dollars worth of resources that can be used by interested states to aid development.

But if sustained development should occur in a secure maritime domain, it also needs to occur in a way that leads to healthier oceans. African countries must ensure that ocean governance and environmental protection are prioritised when envisioning where and how to invest in their blue economies.

Today, 8 June, is World Oceans Day. This year’s theme – ‘Healthy oceans, healthy planet’ – is an opportunity for African stakeholders to question how they interact with the seas and oceans; and which economic benefits they could reasonably expect to derive. It also emphasises the need for measures to be taken to ensure that common threats and maritime crimes do not harm this vital, yet vulnerable, domain. This vulnerability has been starkly illustrated in a report published by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), titled Reviving the Ocean Economy: The case for action 2015The report highlights that the oceans are a major contributor to the global economy, but also shows that they are in a perilous state.

Ocean governance and protection must be prioritised when investing in blue economies

Fish stocks everywhere are under stress; the plastic content of the oceans is increasing; and oceans are steadily acidifying – bleaching coral reefs and harming marine life all over the world.

The report also highlights additional harmful practices, such as the overexploitation of fish; illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing; as well as unsustainable aquaculture practices, marine pollution, habitat destruction and climate change.

An influential report by the Global Ocean Commission (GOC) titled The Future of our Ocean: Next steps and priorities looks at ways to combat some of these threats, as well as policies to redress or overcome them. These warnings are crucial: as are the lessons and advice. African countries cannot sustainably develop their maritime domains in an environment marked by the harms of illegal fishing; or irreparably damaged by pollutants.

While the environmental challenges are vast, they are now better understood. The development of a blue economy is a complicated task. The investments required to achieve this are huge, the technology required is often expensive and might not be environmentally friendly, and the benefits will take a while to realise. It is therefore a key global governance task to ensure that efforts at developing blue economies are not rushed, improperly pursued, or forsaken before fruition.

The governance framework for constructing a blue economy is also being pursued and developed on supranational, continental and national levels, which is leading to a stronger framework of laws and regulations.

The oceans are a major contributor to the global economy, but they're in a perilous state

A major breakthrough in improving ocean governance frameworks occurred when it was identified as Goal 14 of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. The goal to ‘conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources’ had been long overdue. In April this year, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa launched a useful and pertinent manual titled Africa's Blue Economy: A policy handbook to help states in balancing national imperatives with global obligations. This handbook will serve as an important point of departure for future research and policymaking.

Additional lessons or examples can be derived from observing the implementation of an ocean economy under Operation Phakisa in South Africa. This is a national development plan, which is expected to add R177 billion to its gross domestic product by 2030. This will be achieved by fast-tracking and assisting in the development and enhancement of maritime sectors such as aquaculture; oil and gas; marine protection; marine manufacturing, such as shipbuilding; and marine transport.

Such national development initiatives can act as beacons for others to consider when navigating the creation of their own blue economies, but plans must take the health of the oceans into better account. It’s worth noting that the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) leads Operation Phakisa’s ocean economy initiative. This is a positive indication that the long-term outcome of the plan will be as environmentally friendly as possible.

At the continental level, the AU’s 2050 AIM Strategy has identified how a healthy ocean is critical if states are to successfully benefit from their blue economies. It envisions a future where AU member states ‘foster more wealth creation from Africa’s oceans, seas and inland water ways by developing a thriving maritime economy and realizing the full potential of sea-based activities in an environmentally sustainable manner.’

The envisioned blue economy therefore ‘improves African citizens’ wellbeing while significantly reducing marine environmental risks, as well as ecological and biodiversity deficiencies.’ This quote also highlights a key tension that has been present in ongoing blue economy plans: reducing risk is all very well, but ideally it should be minimal to non-existent, as harmful maritime industries, practices and technologies should have been eliminated and replaced by environmentally friendly alternatives.

African countries can't develop their maritime domains in an environment harmed by illegal fishing

It remains to be seen how prominently these environmental concerns figure at the Extraordinary AU Summit on Maritime Security and Safety and Development in Africa to be held in Lomé, Togo on 15 October 2016. The Lomé Summit is vitally important. It should result in a charter that ‘will call for appropriate measures to fight against insecurity at sea in all its forms and conducive to the blue economy in Africa for the benefit of the peoples of the continent.’

Such guidance and momentum should go a long way towards sustaining interest in cooperative ocean governance – provided the charter includes measures designed to encourage greater marine awareness, and aid in identifying common interests.  

World Oceans Day is, above all, an opportunity to reflect on how we perceive our relationship with the seas and oceans. Humanity’s relationship with the oceans, present and future, means many things to many people; yet there seem to be two dominant perspectives on how best to protect and develop maritime resources. These two viewpoints might well be heading for a clash. 

Some, including the AU, view the oceans as a site of massive economic and exploitable potential – which requires investment, and which will likely succeed in generating much-needed wealth. This contrasts with the sense of vulnerability and fragility emphasised in research from the WWF and GOC, or outlined by the UN, on the state or health of the oceans.

The concept of sustainable development strikes a useful balance between potential and vulnerability. Provided it is not too late, this is the best way to avoid a clash and ensure the long-term sustainability of Africa’s maritime domain as a source of health, wealth and prosperity – turning sunken costs into sunken treasure.

Timothy Walker, Researcher, Peace Operations and Peacebuilding division, ISS Pretoria

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