Together we can beat marine pollution in the Caribbean

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Una isla de plástico flota en el Mar Caribe. Foto: Caroline Power Una isla de plástico flota en el Mar Caribe. Foto: Caroline Power

Let’s start with the wins. In a robust effort to tackle marine pollution, 14 Caribbean countries, accounting for one-third of the region’s Small Island States, have banned single-use plastics and/or Styrofoam . This is a critical first step, particularly as the Caribbean moves toward a Blue Economy – increasing growth while ensuring that ocean and marine resources are sustainably managed and used.

Just a few decades ago, the Caribbean Sea and its beaches were pristine. Fast forward to today, when hundreds of thousands of tons of plastic remain uncollected on Caribbean islands each year and voluminous waves of plastic waste wash up on the shores, especially after severe storms.

In our own travels, we have witnessed increased pressures on Small Island States: growing populations, unmanaged coastal development, quickening climate change, more shipping, and a longtime dearth of waste collection and management. Combined, these challenges to ocean health are a threat to the millions of people who depend on oceans for their food, jobs, and livelihoods – not to mention the USD $57 billion of revenue that the region’s coastal tourism brings in annually.

Entire ecosystems and the natural assets these countries depend on are undermined by marine pollution, which includes plastics, sewage, agricultural runoff, gas, and oil. The Caribbean is particularly vulnerable to health-related impacts of pollution, such as viruses borne of mosquitoes that breed in the litter. In fact, litter accounts for 7-15 % of breeding habitats for mosquitoes carrying dengue, chikungunya, and zika viruses in Latin America and the Caribbean .  

The newly released World Bank report, “Marine Pollution in the Caribbean: Not a Minute to Waste,” highlights the major socio-economic, health, and ecological impacts of marine pollutants and proposes solutions to transition to a blue economy.

The Caribbean Sea is the lifeline supporting 37 distinct economies that are among the most dependent on tourism in the world . Tourists flock to the region for the beauty, biodiversity, and rich marine ecosystems that are now imperiled. Coral reefs, beaches, and mangroves are critical for the sustainability of many economic activities, jobs, and inclusive growth. Yet overall ocean health is increasingly vulnerable to human activities as well as climate change. The data shows that the sea and marine ecosystems are being degraded from marine pollution, acidification, and rising sea temperatures. Coral reef degradation is another dangerous threat to the natural capital of the Caribbean, with an estimated annual revenue loss of between US$350 million and US$870 million .

It is clear that tackling marine pollution is an environmental, economic, and social priority. Most people who live in Small Island States reside within 10 kilometers of the ocean. Marine pollution represents a significant threat to the region’s development and the quality of life of its people.

This report proposes a 12-point action agenda addressing the grave consequences of marine pollution to these nations that are highly exposed and vulnerable to this threat. These recommendations are aligned with regional and international laws and agreements. Marine pollution prevention and control should be considered a top priority for every country in the Caribbean and aligned with broader planning in tourism, agriculture, and coastal development, among other sectors.

The report calls for collective action to implement laws that reduce marine pollution; prioritize investments in waste management, and raise awareness on the importance of water quality and strategic investments in waste control  (framework for action below).

Framework of action in the Caribbean
Reducing marine pollution will support economic growth as well as improved quality of life and health for island residents and for the tourists they host. 

The solutions are in our hands, and they are crucial to the creation of a resilient blue economy that will support better management of marine resources while boosting growth in the region.  Caribbean governments are taking responsibility to create a prosperous blue legacy for future generations.

There is not a minute to waste!

Related material

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Karin Kemper

Global Director, Environment, Natural Resources and Blue Economy Global Practice, World Bank

Tahseen Sayed

Country Director for Caribbean Countries, Latin America and Caribbean

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