Don’t forget the coastal waters!

OECD Environment Directorate

Most public debate about water concerns freshwater. Yet coastal zones are coming under increasing pressure, too. Time for renewed action. 

Most people know the story of the Dutch boy who saved his country by plugging a leaking dyke with his finger until help arrived. For the Dutch, the story had a happy ending, but millions of people living on the world’s coastlands were not so lucky in the past year. First, the tsunami in December 2004 killed over 180,000 people in southern Asia, devastating coastal communities in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand and the Maldives.

Then hurricane Katrina struck the south coast of the US in August 2005, bringing with it a storm surge that caused catastrophic damage along the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, and flooded about 80% of the city of New Orleans. Although Katrina was the costliest (US$75 billion damages, and counting) and deadliest (1,417 deaths) hurricane in US history, there may well be more like it in the future.

How much these increasingly destructive coastal weather patterns can be attributed to global warming is a major debate. But beyond that, there is the issue of sea level rise–by over 19cm since 1870, according to recent Australian research–which scientists confirm may be accelerating. Moreover, recent British research has raised the spectre of a collapse of the polar ice sheets, causing a possible further sea level rise of 5-6m.

In other words, water challenges do not just concern freshwater. Indeed, in the future, many coastal populations will likely face a greater threat from sea water encroachment and storm flooding than restricted water supplies. The world’s coastline stretches to 1.63 million kilometres, and nearly half (46%) of it is located in OECD countries, mostly reflecting the long coastlines of Canada, the US, Mexico and Australia. Most importantly, coastal zones (i.e. areas within 100km of a shoreline and 100m of sea level) are home to 1.2 billion people, or a fifth of the world’s population. Overall, average population density in coastal zones is three times higher than the world average, and in recent decades the overall growth of coastal populations has outstripped that of inland populations.

Such a concentration of people in coastal areas brings with it three major challenges. First, how to manage growing environmental pressures from land-use change, pollution, aquaculture, etc., so that they do not compromise the natural buffering capacity of coastal areas? Second, how to organize coastal settlements in order to minimize the population at risk from sea level rise, massive storms and other projected effects of climate change? Third, how to balance the often conflicting demands for use of the marine coastal zone for a range of economic activities, including shipping, mineral extraction, tourism, fishing and aquaculture?

Oceans cover 71% of the world’s surface, but as human populations continue to grow, what once appeared to be a limitless resource is now in need of more responsible management. Two-thirds of the world’s fossil fuels are transported by tanker, and maritime cargo shipping has been growing for decades. The risk of accidents or illegal discharges has climbed proportionately. Meanwhile, cruise ships carry a greater number of tourists every year, and produce millions of litres of sewage and wastewater, and tons of solid waste. Mounting evidence links the dumping of ship waste at sea to harmful algae blooms, oxygen-depleted “dead zones”, shellfish bed closures, and the destruction of animal life. Also, as offshore oil and gas fields reach the end of their lives, pollutant discharges per unit of production are rising, introducing the risk of damaging fisheries stocks through exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals.

In short, nowhere are the environmental pressures associated with climatic, demographic and economic trends felt more strongly than in the nexus of our coastal zones–both on land and offshore. What, if anything, can policymakers do to manage these intensifying pressures and help people to adapt to them? Difficult questions need to be answered. For example, should coastal communities devastated by storm surges be rebuilt as before? If not, what constraints should be imposed? To what extent are major investments in coastal protection justified? Can we “internalise” more of the environmental costs of shipping, fishing, aquaculture and tourism for polluters and users to pay, rather than leaving the tab for others to pick up? Finding answers to such questions will require being as forthright about coastal management objectives as we are about, say, labour standards.

As long ago as 1993, an Agenda for Action was issued at the World Coast Conference in the Netherlands. It called for coastal states to identify their objectives for coastal zone management, and begin implementing programmes to achieve them. It also called for strengthening the capacity of developing countries to manage coastal resources, through development assistance. Twelve years on, recent events have illustrated that there remains considerable room for progress.

If we were to hold a World Coast Conference today, what might a new Agenda for Action contain? Technical experts might call for improved prediction of major storms and tsunami, with freer flow of information across borders. Emergency management experts might call for strengthened regional capacity to respond to large-scale coastal disasters. Policy experts might call for innovative economic or regulatory measures to encourage more sustainable development of our coastal settlements and resources.

Twenty-four OECD countries hold a major direct stake in the future of coasts, and even the six landlocked member countries are concerned, through their foreign assistance or trade. Indeed, three of these –Switzerland, Luxembourg, and Slovakia–operate small merchant marines! Is it not time we mobilised our collective energies and expertise to put a new agenda into action?

Recent events have demonstrated that coastal zones are on the front line when it comes to dealing with the consequences of climate change and sea level rise. With so many people living on that front line and so many economic activities rooted there, will we find the sense of urgency we need to develop innovative policy approaches, nationally and internationally? The price of inaction would be destruction on a scale that no little Dutch hero could stop.

©OECD Observer No 254, March 2006


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