Resources & Climate

Tempest Tossed: Meeting Environmental Challenges in the Indian Ocean

in Program

By David Michel – Oceans and coastal regions worldwide are coming under increasing environmental pressures. These growing stresses include habitat destruction and biodiversity loss, land-based and marine pollution, overfishing, and the rising impacts of global warming and mounting greenhouse gas emissions. The countries of the Indian Ocean rim are especially vulnerable, particularly to the prospective repercussions of global climate change on coastal zones and marine resources. Significant portions of the Indian Ocean now figure among the most highly impacted ecosystems on Earth and the littoral countries count among the world’s most susceptible to coastal environmental risks, posing substantial governance challenges for policymakers throughout the region.

Around the Indian Ocean, coastal development for ports, aquaculture, roads, buildings, and urban infrastructure is destroying or diminishing mangroves, coral reefs, wetlands, and other habitats. Pollution, destructive fishing practices such as the use of dynamite and poisons, coral mining for construction materials, and coral bleaching endanger two-thirds of the Indian Ocean’s 12,070 km2 of coral reefs and four-fifths of the 3,175 km2 of corals in the Red Sea. By one estimate, some 40-trillion liters of sewage and 4-trillion liters of industrial wastes enter the region’s coastal waters every year. Agricultural runoff, and domestic and industrial effluents dumped in the sea can cause eutrophication (blooms of phytoplankton resulting from the added nutrients in the effluents) and attendant hypoxia (depletion of oxygen in the water), or act as toxic substances, killing local flora and fauna. Eutrophication and hypoxia can engender effective dead zones in coastal areas. Eight such zones now blot the Indian Ocean.

Projected impacts from global warming include rising sea levels, stronger tropical cyclones, larger storm surges, increasing sea surface temperatures, and-as the oceans absorb more of the carbon dioxide that human activities emit to the atmosphere-growing acidification of surface waters. For coastal ecosystems and communities, the potential consequences could be considerable, threatening the livelihoods, health, and welfare of millions of people. More frequent and severe storms can inundate low-lying coastal zones, destroying infrastructure and displacing populations. Higher water levels and larger wave surges can contribute to accelerated shoreline erosion and retreat. Mounting sea levels can also exacerbate saltwater intrusion into the rivers and aquifers that furnish freshwater to coastal settlements. Warmer water temperatures and acidifying oceans can degrade the ecology of coral reefs, and threaten the artisanal and commercial fisheries that nourish many seaboard communities.

All told, Indian Ocean nations represent six of the 10 most vulnerable states worldwide-ranked by total population living in low-lying coastal settlements. A 2009 World Bank study examining the dangers to developing nations from potential storm-surge disasters concluded that five of the 10 countries with the greatest percentage of coastal population at risk, five of the 10 countries with the highest percentage of coastal GDP at risk, six of the 10 countries with the highest proportion of coastal urban areas, and 21 of the 50 most vulnerable major cities at risk lie on the Indian Ocean. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that, even under the most conservative scenarios, the annual number of coastal flood victims will soar from 13 to 94 million by 2100, with almost 80 percent of this increase occurring along the Indian Ocean from Pakistan to Thailand and Indonesia. One meter of sea-level rise would inundate 5,800 km2 of Indian territory and submerge 14 percent of the land area of Bahrain. Climate pressures especially endanger small or low-lying islands like the Maldives, Mauritius, and Seychelles. Major infrastructure in these countries-roads, airports, seaports, towns-is situated almost exclusively along the coasts. With little space to retreat from rising seas, citizens might be forced to abandon certain islands, or even evacuate their territory altogether. (In the Maldives, one meter of sea-level rise, added to the ocean’s highest astronomical tide, would flood out the entire capital city of Malé). Such population displacements would prompt multiple tangled questions for the countries of origin – including issues of sovereignty and control of EEZs – for the destination countries, and for the migrants themselves.

Human exposure to such hazards will almost certainly increase with ongoing coastal development. According to detailed analyses undertaken for the UK government, the global population living in low-elevation coastal zones could grow from 625 million in 2000 to 1 to 1.4 billion in 2060. Yet policymakers frequently lack the financial, institutional, and information resources necessary to devise and deploy effective national response strategies, much less targeted local measures. Worldwide, financing climate change adaptation measures in coastal zones could require additional annual investment flows of $10 to 30 billion per year by 2030.

All the nations of the Indian Ocean rim will have to take action to address a growing host of coastal and marine environmental challenges. Yet though the individual countries of the region struggle with many of the same issues, they lack a common policy framework for addressing their shared problems in integrated fashion. Around the Indian Ocean, littoral states belong to a patchwork of regional political and economic organizations, from the East African Community and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation, which differ considerably in their mandates and engagement with environmental issues, none of them encompassing all of the region’s coastal countries. Those entities specifically devoted to environmental matters, such as UNEP’s Regional Seas programs and the Indian Ocean’s various fisheries commissions, similarly diverge in their geographical coverage, and topical capacities and competencies.

The region has little need and less appetite for erecting new international institutions on top of the existing ones. Rather, the Indian Ocean nations must sustain and strengthen the architecture already in place; ensure the resources and will to implement, enforce, and build on their existing commitments; and devise mechanisms to share lessons and coordinate activities between organizations and actors around the region to further their common goals.

Photo Credit: Wyatt Smith,

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