The blue economy and maritime security in Africa: why now?

As a high-level conference on protecting Africa's seas and oceans gets under way, Essam Yassin Mohammed reflects on the multiple dimensions to maritime security in Africa's coastal regions.

A fishing boat and cruise liner cross paths outside Zakynthos Harbour (Photo: Robert Wallace, Creative Commons, via Flickr)

I recently had the pleasure of speaking at a Chatham House event on Ensuring Africa's Maritime Security for Development. The event was held to garner ideas and ignite discussion ahead of the Lomé Conference, which aims to put in place an "African strategy for the protection of its seas and oceans, to provide peace, security and stability, and to make African maritime space the key driver for sustainable economic development".

This is a crucial issue, but as I said at the event, the full range of risks to security and stability must be considered.

The Lomé Conference, scheduled to take place on 15 October 2016 with a number of heads of states and ministers expected to attend, follows previous summits held in Yaoundé and the Seychelles in 2013 and 2015 respectively, and represents a major opportunity to focus attention on critical enablers and pathways to ocean-based economy the continent aspires to achieve.

Africa's dependence on marine resources 

Communities in coastal African states have lived off the bounty of the oceans for thousands of years. Coastal and marine environments provide vital benefits to humankind – they supply fish, help regulate the environment, and facilitate the movement of goods and people.

Fisheries alone provide multiple benefits to impoverished coastal communities. As well as being a major source of food, fisheries provide employment for millions of men and women – at least 10 million in Africa alone.

But despite this, the importance of fisheries and coastal and marine ecosystems is often understated or ignored. This has led to overexploitation and degradation of the resource, reducing the quality and effectiveness of the benefits it provides.

I have persistently argued that the main problem is that conventional markets fail to put a price tag on the benefits that coastal and marine ecosystems provide. Those in charge of coastal resources often do not consider the value of these benefits when making decisions about how these resources should be used.

Perceptions and attitudes towards marine resources in Africa have come a long way. Take the sheer absence of any reference to marine resources in most national poverty reduction strategies in sub-Saharan Africa (with the exception of Ghana, Guinea and Senegal) in the 1990s, for example.

Today, there is at least a clear mention of 'blue economy' as the main engine of development in Africa's Agenda 2063. And some countries such as the Seychelles and Kenya are championing this by establishing a line ministry or department for blue economy.

While growing recognition of the value of the marine environment should certainly be celebrated, security threats to that environment are often not fully considered.

What is maritime security?

While the media and Hollywood tend to reduce maritime security to traditional threats from external military or piracy off the coast of Somalia (see Captain Philips for example), security has multiple dimensions and should also be understood in a local context.

Piracy may well be the main security threat off the coast of Somalia, but elsewhere illegal fishing, human and drug trafficking, slavery, dumping of waste, or natural disasters may pose a more significant risk.

Climate change and implications for (in)security 

While I do not want to underplay these other security issues, I believe, perhaps one of the major but least discussed security threats to the maritime environment is climate change.

Changes in the biophysical characteristics of the oceans (such as temperature or salinity) and the frequent occurrence of extreme events (such as hurricanes and storm surges) will have significant effects on the ecosystems that support the livelihoods of many impoverished communities.

This in turn will affect food (in)security in multiple ways. The extinction of some fish species, for example, means lower fish production for local consumption. The migration of some fish species to find optimal climate conditions will hit fishers who are not able to follow due to political borders or because of the distance and cost.

And because most of the fish harvested for export in most African countries is supplied by small-scale fisheries, another result is likely to be reduced fish production, meaning lower earnings from fish exports, resulting in a reduced capacity to import food.

Overall this will exacerbate national food insecurity. Countries such as Ghana, Sierra Leone, and Senegal where populations depend on marine resources as their main sources of animal protein, will be particularly affected.

Projected changes such as sea level rise, sea surface temperature rise, and ocean acidification also pose a threat to coastal infrastructure, such as harbours, fish processing plants, aquaculture plants, and other coastal development projects. Increased uncertainty over the risk from tidal surges, for example, is likely to discourage much needed private sector investment in coastal economies – or lead to reduced returns on investment because of significantly increased abatement costs.

Reduced investment and rates of return due to uncertainties related to climate change are likely to result in reduced income and employment opportunities. This is something the continent cannot afford. Africa's youth population is expected to double from current levels by 2055 (PDF).

What to expect from Lomé?

I believe the Lomé Conference is an opportune moment to highlight these multiple dimensions to maritime security and to emphasise the need for member states and their international partners to join hands to mitigate the impacts of climate change and develop a resilient African strategy for maritime security.

The rush to ratify the Paris Agreement and rapid entry into force, surpassing everyone's expectations, should be harnessed to align Africa's maritime security with climate change mitigation and adaptation interventions in the continent and beyond. 

Essam Yassin Mohammed (eymohammed@iied.org) is a senior researcher in IIED's Shaping Sustainable Markets research group.