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Why we need a Blue Recovery

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A woman fishing on Paje beach, Zanzibar, Tanzania. Photo: © Matej Kastelic/Shutterstock

COVID-19 has brought untold suffering to communities worldwide, compounded by what World Bank estimates suggest will be the worst recession since World War II. Such a cataclysmic event requires a bold response, both in the immediate term by providing medical care and the safety nets needed to prevent people from falling into poverty but also in the longer term. As we work with countries to build back their economies and strengthen their communities, it cannot be business as usual and sustainability needs to be fully built into the recovery. But building back better should go beyond the green recovery that is being spoken about and embrace a “Blue Recovery.” The pandemic struck at a time when oceans are under increasing threat from myriad impacts  – ranging from the warming effects of climate change to pollution caused by coastal run-off and marine litter, overfishing and coral reef and biodiversity loss.

“Building back better should go beyond the green recovery that is being spoken about and embrace a “Blue Recovery.”

Various oceanic sectors have also taken a direct hit in terms of livelihoods, with tourism-heavy coastal areas affected along with the fishing industry. The FAO estimates that around one in 10 people depend, directly or indirectly, on fisheries and aquaculture for their livelihood, with most employed by capture fisheries working in small-scale operations. Women make up about half of the workforce in the fisheries sector when processing and trading are included.

With so much at stake and so many people depending on oceans for both livelihoods and food, the imperative for healthy oceans is more urgent.  Even before COVID-19, estimates were that about 8 million tonnes of plastic waste are dumped into the ocean every year – about a dump-truck a minute. With the increased need for hygiene and protective equipment in response to COVID-19, even more single-use plastics are expected to make their way into oceans. And while GHG emissions have temporarily decreased in the wake of less economic activity, scientists are clear that the impact this slowdown has had on easing global warming will be marginal because the effects of climate change are cumulative and too much damage has been done already.

“With so much at stake and so many people depending on oceans for both livelihoods and food, the imperative for healthy oceans is more urgent.”

A key question, then, is how can we help people who risk falling back into poverty because of the economic impacts of COVID-19 while at the same time continuing to work for healthier oceans which - after all – are our lifeline? 

I have five suggestions:

First, the large economic stimulus packages being approved worldwide also need to apply a ‘blue lens’.  In addition to being generally climate friendly (as the European Green Deal is by among other factors, targeting global warming with a focus on renewable energy), these packages should consider the impact from stimulus-induced infrastructure projects and their potential impacts on the world’s coastal zones. Instead of grey infrastructure, sustainable nature—based infrastructure can be promoted (for example, consider planting mangroves that provide a better natural barrier during intense storms than concrete seawalls). We have already engaged along this path by signing up to the Sustainable Blue Economy Finance Principles, which were launched in 2017. These principles provide a pragmatic framework to build resilience by guiding finance towards the most sustainable development pathways and through which we collaborate with among others, the European Commission, the European Investment Bank, the World Wildlife Fund for Nature, and most recently, the Asian Development Bank.

Second, governments could proactively include improved solid waste management systems in the sectors to be supported through recovery funds.  In other words, we can make solid waste management an essential sector. Solid waste management is labor intensive and supports job creation. Functioning waste management systems are also essential to curbing the ever-growing amount of waste and marine plastics that make their way into oceans. An investment in solid waste management is a down payment on the future.

Third, before the pandemic, around 80 percent of tourism was in coastal towns and areas, and the COVID-19 crisis is leaving countless coastal and island communities in shambles and wondering how to get back on their feet if tourists do not return.  All parts of the tourism value chain have been affected. Blue recovery funds can be used to support more sustainable forms of tourism, particularly during a time when social distancing and space is at a premium.  Tourism should evolve from involving communities as mere stakeholders to being “shareholders”, which would create not only jobs but also wealth. Also, when tourism bounces back, it needs to support conservation efforts.

Fourth, in earlier crises such as in response to the Tsunami of 2004, fishing was incentivized and encouraged to help coastal communities recover. This, however, led to significant overfishing in some areas because many who never used to fish were encouraged to join the sector, without regard to overcapacity and overfishing. This is why it is essential to look at the underlying asset base, or natural capital – in this case fish – and suggest incentives that benefit people, but also safeguard the health of critical ecosystems over the long run. After all, fish make up about 20 percent of protein intake in developing countries and it is essential that this base be maintained as a low-cost nutritional option for current and future generations.

Finally, the full potential of marine spatial planning must be considered.  Oceanic sectors such as shipping, offshore renewable energy, fisheries and tourism will pick up again over time. Now is the moment to take stock and to think through how best to use a country’s Exclusive Economic Zone, as a whole, including all oceanic sectors, and how to make a Blue Recovery that will benefit people, economies and, of course, marine biodiversity.  Or -as one of my colleagues said – maybe it’s not green, it’s not blue, it’s aqua colored.


The World Bank Group and COVID-19

The World Bank and Environment


Karin Kemper

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

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