World Ocean Conference

Protecting coastal communities
from climate change

This week, an unprecedented alliance of six leaders whose nations make up the Coral Triangle will take to the international stage at the World Ocean Conference (WOC) in Manado to demonstrate their resolve to build a future that does not leave their coastal communities vulnerable to the coming dangers of climate change.

Joining forces in the Coral Triangle Initiative (CTI) on Coral Reefs, Fisheries and Food Security, the leaders of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Timor Leste and the Solomon Islands will highlight the urgent need to address the poverty afflicting their coastal peoples, and to protect them from further hardships associated with a changing climate.

Nowhere is the need to act on climate change seen more starkly than in the remarkable marine region known as the Coral Triangle.

This 6-million-square-kilometer area straddling the Indian and Pacific oceans, often compared to the Amazon rainforest or the Congo basin in terms of its importance to life on Earth, covers just 1 percent of the Earth's surface but includes 30 percent of the world's coral reefs, 76 percent of its reef-building coral species and more than 35 percent of its coral reef fish species, as well as vital spawning grounds for other economically important fish such as tuna.

But at stake is much more than the loss of some of the most remarkable seascapes on the planet. There is little doubt that a failure to act on climate change and other threats to coastal ecosystems will be catastrophic for more than 100 million people in the Coral Triangle who depend directly on its marine resources for food and income.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono instigated the CTI in mid 2007. Within six months, all Coral Triangle countries had committed to it, which is an indication of the level of concern over the degradation of marine, coastal and small island ecosystems within the Coral Triangle, and of the expected impacts of climate change.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) will release a groundbreaking new report to coincide with this meeting in Manado. It paints a picture of two very different worlds.

If we continue along the current climate pathway, we see 50 percent less protein available from the sea by 2050, and 80 percent less by the end of the century, posing a major food security threat for coastal communities that have few alternatives for food and income.

This is because coral reefs that support fisheries have bleached or crumbled, mangroves and sea grass beds that provide spawning grounds for commercially valuable species have been lost to rising seas and increased storm activity, while overexploitation and pollution have affected remaining marine resources.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently reassessed its estimates of sea level rise after taking into account the rapid melting of mountain glaciers and the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. It warned governments around the world to prepare for an increase of 4 degrees by the end of the century, and said sea levels could rise by as much as a meter.

For the Coral Triangle, failure to act on this threat means that by the end of the century, tens of millions of people will be forced to move from rural and coastal areas due to loss of homes, food resources and income.

Declining food and water security, natural disasters and loss of ecosystem goods and services are all factors that can undermine human security and threaten the health and sustainability of not only communities but entire nations. To stabilize countries, we must stabilize ecosystems.

So the international community must act to dramatically reduce its emissions. In this world, the goods and services we obtain from the sea are managed carefully now so that when the impacts of climate change are felt over the coming decades, we have strong natural systems in place to help people adapt.

This is the world to which the CTI countries aspire.

Some climate change is inevitable, but by laying these foundations, we create conditions in the Coral Triangle that are manageable and respond well to regional action to reduce local environmental stresses from overfishing, pollution and declining coastal water quality and health.

Investment in strategies that help strengthen marine environments coupled with effective global action on the issue of greenhouse gases, leading to a stabilization of atmospheric concentrations at low levels toward the latter half of the century is both critical and achievable.

Coral Triangle leaders meeting in Manado will be part of an important moment in which they can make a real difference to the future of the Coral Triangle and its people.

The difference between making effective decisions and making poor ones has been made clear, and how we decide to act now will determine whether we are able to lay the path to a safer future.

Freddy Numberi is Indonesian maritime affairs and fisheries minister, and James Leape is the director of WWF International.

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