Africa boasts of an abundance of natural resources, in particular aquatic and marine resources, with a potential that has not yet been fully tapped in the context of economic growth and sustainable development. The African Great Lakes constitute the largest proportion of surface freshwater in the world (27%). This becomes therefore a globally important strategic resource as reserves of freshwater are dwindling in most parts of the world. In fact, Lake Victoria is the third largest fresh water lake in the world by area, and Lake Tanganyika is the second largest in volume and depth in the world. Freshwater and ocean fish make a vital contribution to the food and nutritional security of over 200 million Africans and provide income for over 10 million annually. From the 54 African States, 38 are coastal States. Maritime zones under Africa’s jurisdiction total about 13 million square kilometres including territorial seas and approximately 6.5 million square kilometres of the continental shelf. We have two thirds of the equivalent area of Africa’s landmass under the sea. This is huge! One of our Oceans, the Indian Ocean, is the third largest in the world carrying a large part of the world’s trade by sea. The significant dependence of African countries on international trade makes maritime transport crucial for the continent’s economic development. Indeed more than 90% of Africa’s imports and exports are conducted by sea and some of the most strategic gateways for international trade are in Africa.
The African Union rightly calls Africa’s Blue Economy “a new frontier for the continent’s renaissance” in its 2050 Africa’s Integrated Maritime Strategy (AIM).We have a hidden treasure under and within our seas, which needs to be revealed, protected and built upon to contribute to the structural transformation process of our continent. The potential is significant. Africa’s maritime economy currently is linked to about 70% of the continent’s GDP, generating about three quarters of government’s fiscal revenues. With Africa’s expanding economies coupled with rapid population growth and urbanization, we can expect increased pressure on coasts and marine resources. Port throughput on the continent is expected to rise from 265 million tons in 2009 to more than 2 billion tons in 2040. Safer and more efficient ports could strengthen regional integration in the continent and could also play a crucial role in the implementation of the Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA). It would also bolster the emerging African manufacturing industry and also generate significant revenues for governments as well as employment opportunities for many Africans. Ensuring maritime security and safety is paramount for Africa’s development.
It is known that the threats which jeopardise Africa’s maritime area include transnational organised crime such as illegal arms and drug trafficking, piracy and armed robbery at sea, illegal oil bunkering, crude oil theft along African coasts, maritime terrorism, human trafficking, people smuggling and asylum seekers travelling by sea. Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing and overfishing, as well as environmental crimes such as deliberate shipwrecking and oil spillage, and the dumping of toxic wastes are also of significant concern. Another major challenge is container traffic, as more than seven million large and small containers are moving around the world every day, the ability of port and customs official to check their contents is limited. Recent experience has indicated that these containers can be used to smuggle everything from terrorists to illegal substances.
Existing vulnerable legal frameworks combined with the lack of and/or poorly maintained aids to navigation, the absence of modern hydrographic surveys, up-to-date nautical charts as well as maritime safety information in a number of African States are inexistent or insufficiently developed which is detrimental to maritime security and safety. Even where they are developed ocean governance is extremely difficult in the high seas and on a regional scale, the patchwork of regulations can be very complex with even less ability for enforcement.
Most of these threats are geopolitical in nature and are particularly complex as they are multifaceted and interconnected. Their consequences are also dire. The increasing piracy acts have become a major impediment to the competiveness of African ports over the past decades. Piracy attacks increase not only shipping costs to Africa but also affect directly port traffic flows with ships avoiding risky routes. The attacks have been particularly detrimental, reducing traffic flow to, and from African ports located between the Red Sea and Indian Ocean, near the Somalia coast, and in the Gulf of Guinea. Even though the piracy in the Strait of Malacca, next to Malaysia and Singapore, is significantly higher than Somalia, the perception is not that. Besides loss of lives, assets and opportunity costs foregone, the wider implications of maritime terrorism are that any political instability in a coastal African state is capable of generating threats to global traffic and freedom of navigation and could trigger a contagion effect inland. This could lead to a vicious circle where the threats and impacts are exacerbated by and/or lead to political instability, corruption, lack of state control, among others.
The strategic importance of securing our maritime zones cannot be taken lightly. A holistic and integrated approach based on combined metrics of growth and progress in which economic success is linked with environmental and material stewardship is necessary to address existing threats and vulnerabilities and realize the full potential of Africa’s Blue Economy requires, social responsibility and the highest governance and transparency standards. There are some key ideas we must keep in mind while crafting this approach. Firstly, we need to take stock of our “blue” endowment in order to protect these important assets and optimize their use and management to achieve structural transformation and inclusive sustainable development. The Economic Commission for Africa recently launched its publication on the Blue Economy, which offers a comprehensive step‐by‐step guide to help African countries and regional bodies to better understand the vast potential of the Blue Economy. It provides policy makers, regional organisations, development practitioners and other stakeholders on the continent and beyond, with an operational framework, case studies, comparative experiences and examples of policy formulation processes as further guidance material to better mainstream the Blue Economy into their national development plans, strategies, policies and laws, aiming to foster structural transformation.
Secondly, regional cooperation must be at the forefront to effectively confront the threats to maritime security. Harmonized transnational co-ordination and regulation must be strengthened to address illegal activities over the coastal areas and across borders taking into consideration different jurisdictions relating to territorial waters, exclusive economic zones (EEZs), or high seas in a context of poor border demarcation. This will require strengthening monitoring, control and surveillance in these different spaces. The role of regional and sub-regional bodies, such as the African Union and the RECs, would be crucial, as would that of other regional cooperation mechanisms. Thirdly, the connections and interdependence of different economic sectors, and enhancing responsiveness to emerging sectors is a must. It is equally fundamental to recognize climate change imperatives through the prioritizing of resource efficiency and low carbon footprint models with equity and social inclusion, and job creation.
African countries must squarely address these challenges, take full stock and realize their transformative potential in the Blue Economy context. If properly secured and harnessed, our Blue Economy can be a major contributor to continental transformation and growth, advancing knowledge on marine and aquatic biotechnology, the growth of an Africa-wide shipping industry, the development of sea, river and lake transport and fishing; and exploitation and beneficiation of deep sea mineral and other resources.
*Dr. Carlos Lopes is the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. Carlos Lopes holds a PhD in history from the University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne and a research master from the Geneva Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies.