How humanity’s prosperity depends on the health of our oceans

July 1, 2022

One of the most critical roles oceans play is in creating natural buffers against coastal hazards such as tsunamis, storm surges and food crises associated with saline intrusion.

UNDP Jamaica

Just as nearly 70 percent of the human body is made up of water, almost 70 percent of our planet is also covered in water. We know that too much or too little water in the human body can spell major risks to one’s life; this symbolic similarity should also be a powerful reminder that when life below water, Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14, is shifted off its axis, we see an increased risk to the quality of life on land, SDG 15. In this way, water is quite literally life: humanity and our ocean systems are inextricably linked.

One of the most critical roles oceans play is in creating natural buffers against coastal hazards such as tsunamis, storm surges and food crises associated with saline intrusion.

As someone from an island nation, or “large ocean state,” as small-island developing states prefer to categorize themselves given their geographic location and the intrinsic value of the oceans to the world at large, this effect on our economic and social wellbeing is something I inherently understand. I have also personally witnessed the devastating impacts some anthropogenic, or human-caused, actions have on ocean ecosystems, and the unwelcome consequences such actions have had on our safety and security. 

The reality of coastal living 

As a young man growing up in the Caribbean, I had many excursions to the nearby coastal areas. Social and recreational activities offered me the opportunity to admire the wonders of the oceans and its intricate ecosystems; beautiful beaches and rocky shorelines all derived from the workings of constructive and destructive wave actions of a once healthy ocean.  

Over time, however, I observed changes which were the early warning signs of the declining health of our underwater ecosystems, due primarily to pollution that was harming the intricate network of aquatic life.  

Later in my personal story, but still early in my professional experience, I observed firsthand the “ocean’s fury” – her cry for help in a war she was engaged in with humankind. 

In 1998, Hurricane Mitch, one of the deadliest recorded hurricanes to have hit Latin America and parts of Caribbean, resulted in storm surges of 13 metres (44 feet), unleashing the destructive power of the ocean on coastal life, including tourism-dependent communities in western Jamaica. Entire walls of reinforced concrete were smashed to pieces, and significant damage was done to infrastructure. One of the most startling personal observations was what the ocean deposited onto the once pristine white sand beaches. Amidst the aquatic life were pieces of garbage clearly deposited in the ocean over time.  

What hit home that day, literally and figuratively, was not a fear of the recurrence of natural and or coastal hazard events associated with that particular hurricane, but rather the realization of what we were doing to the natural systems which we knowingly or unknowingly depend on for our very survival. Our quest for development for individual or collective prosperity was resulting in incredibly harmful and destructive consequences. 

Coming together at a critical time 

Fast forwarding to the present day, the UN World Oceans Conference, held June 27 to July 1 under the theme Save our Ocean, Protect our Future”, has generated great attention and a renewed urgency.  

The World Meteorological Organization, in its State of the Climate 2021 Report, has indicated that the world’s oceans have reached their warmest and most acidic levels on record, threatening ecosystems, food security and tourism-dependent economies. This fact, along with the correlation between rising ocean temperatures and ecosystem services with tropical cyclone development and impact, does not provide a positive outlook for small island developing states, or large ocean states, in particular.  

This outlook suggests the potential for even more powerful storms, continued erosion of natural coastal buffers and a declining capacity of their economies to produce the necessary capital to invest in prevention, preparedness, and resilience building in the recovery phase.  

Science is showing us that the quality of our oceans is seriously degraded as a direct consequence of overfishing and marine pollution, as well as through unsustainable practices on land such as improper land management, burning of fossil fuels and poor waste disposal, which are leading to ocean acidification.  

If present trends continue, our oceans’ health and ability to sustain life will only get worse. To put it simply, the ocean is one of our greatest allies in our efforts to address the climate emergency, yet we continue to cause her profound harm.  

This is a critical time to invest in restoring the health of our oceans. Reinstating the balance they provide to sustaining life on earth requires a concerted, global effort involving everyone from world leaders to citizens. This means no less than major structural transformation, and investments in integrated solutions that are anchored in the Sustainable Development Goals.  

Reversing the trajectory is indeed a development issue, and every bad development decision made is creating new risks, cumulatively pushing past the thresholds of our natural ecosystems. UNDP is working to foster solutions that are risk-sensitive, sustainable and resilient. In the Philippines, a country which I have recently had the opportunity to visit in the wake of Typhoon Odette, UNDP has been working closely with fisherfolk since 2020. Recognizing the compound risks that recurrent natural hazards and the COVID-19 pandemic has had on livelihoods, the focus has been not only on recovery but also tailored resilience-building activities that both protect ocean health while supporting livelihoods. 

We remain optimistic that personalized approaches that address the specific and localized challenges that coastal communities face will result in larger benefits across countries, chief among them being healthier ocean ecosystems.  

Let us continue to “sound the alarm” on the state of our oceans. We all have a role to play, and a responsibility to act.  We are water, surrounded by water, and our very existence depends on it.