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Sri Lanka banks on the ocean to chart a green path toward a blue economy

  • Coastal and marine ecosystems in Sri Lanka provide a variety of services that are vital to coastal communities and the environment.
  • To protect these ecosystems while addressing national development needs, Sri Lanka is well-positioned to invest in a “blue economy” that focuses on economic growth that incorporates and protects the environment and ecosystem services.
  • Officials and experts have identified a huge potential to enhance livelihoods and value chains in Sri Lanka’s coastal and marine sector without destroying local ecosystems, based on technical expertise and guidance.
  • If development of the coastal sector can be achieved in harmony with ecosystem growth and conservation, proponents say, this will enhance Sri Lanka’s capacities for climate change mitigation and adaptation, supporting the resilience of its population and its commitments under the Paris Agreement.

COLOMBO — Authorities in Sri Lanka have called for a renewed focus on conserving the island’s rich coastal ecosystems, identifying the “blue economy” as key to the nation’s sustainable development.

The Indian Ocean island has a coastline of 1,340 kilometers (833 miles), territorial waters spanning 21,500 square kilometers (8,300 square miles), and an exclusive economic zone of 517,000 km2 (200,000 mi2), almost eight times its land area. Its coastal zone is home to most of the urban population and infrastructure as well as to bountiful ecosystems that include mangrove forests, tidal marshes, seagrass beds, and coral reefs.

However, large swaths of these ecosystems have been lost or degraded over recent decades, leaving many parts of the coastal belt exposed.

“Even though we are blessed with our geographical location and with our pristine and highly biodiverse coastal and marine environment, our coastal and marine environments are under immense pressure,” Darshani Lahandapura, chair of Sri Lanka’s Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA), told an annual research symposium on the marine environment in May. “While much attention is focused on the problems facing the ocean, the ocean is also the source of potential solutions and innovations.

“Ocean-based climate actions such as ocean-based renewable energy, ocean-based transportation, coastal and marine ecosystems, fisheries and aquaculture, and carbon storage in the seabed have the potential to close the emission gap and mitigate climate change impacts,” Lahandapura added. “Sustainably developing oceans and economic growth for development while maintaining ocean health can define a new era of opportunities for ocean-facing countries.”

The concept of the “blue economy” promotes inclusive economic growth and livelihood development that also ensures the environmental sustainability of oceans and coastal areas. UNESCO defines it as “the decoupling of socioeconomic development through oceans-related sectors and activities from environmental and ecosystems degradation.”

The fisheries sector is one of the biggest sources of coastal livelihoods, with huge potential to optimize supply chains, reduce waste, and develop value addition activities. Image by Dennis Mombauer.

Pathways toward a blue economy

A blue economy can include renewable energy, fisheries, maritime transport, tourism, waste management, and other sectors connected to the coastal and marine environment, according to Ruchira Cumaranatunga, a senior professor at the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture of the University of Ruhuna.

“There are many sustainable socioeconomic development programs that could be carried out in Sri Lanka without harming or with the least impact to the natural vegetation,” Cumaranatunga told Mongabay.

“They are possible and economically feasible, but when preparing such development programs, suitable experts on coastal environment and vegetation should be consulted.”

Sri Lanka isn’t short of ocean-related knowledge and expertise. But this expertise needs to be actively utilized and integrated into planning and implementation processes, Cumaranatunga said. Enhancing livelihoods that use coastal and marine resources in a sustainable and holistic way is often made difficult by gaps in awareness, knowledge, institutional coordination, and cross-sectoral collaboration, he added.

Boosting sustainability and economic growth in the coastal belt without harming the environment can improve existing livelihoods, for example by optimizing supply chains, introducing value addition, or reducing post-harvest losses in fisheries.

“With respect to fishery waste in Sri Lanka, it is discarded haphazardly without considering that it is a valuable resource, causing serious environmental impacts,” Cumaranatunga said.

Every year, 50-60% of Sri Lanka’s fish harvest is discarded as trash fish or fishery waste and dumped into lagoons, estuaries, or the sea. However, if collected, fish waste could be converted to valuable products, for example animal feed, fertilizer, fish oil, fish-skin leather, collagen and gelatin, chitin and chitosan from crab shells and shrimp waste, or natural calcium from shellfish.

Experts have long identified many opportunities to create additional livelihoods in Sri Lanka’s coastal and marine sector without destroying local ecosystems, for example through seaweed farming, which is currently only done on a small scale without value addition; coral reef transplanting to create artificial reefs; captive breeding to replenish fish populations; mariculture; or even building an underwater observatory for tourism and educational purposes. The tourism sector itself provides many opportunities for sustainable development within the blue economy and would greatly benefit from healthy ecosystems, proponents say.

“In Sri Lanka, when buildings are put up, the coastal vegetation is removed to get a better view of the ocean without thinking of its functions,” Cumaranatunga said. “If the coastal vegetation is kept as nature tracks for people to walk through and still get to the beach while enjoying the beauty of coastal natural ecosystems, it would also help to protect the coastline and act as a barrier against coastal erosion. This kind of development will give long-term benefits while helping sustainable socio-economic development.”

When restoration programs have been launched for already disturbed coastal ecosystems, the natural flora and fauna of these areas should be taken into consideration to prevent introduction of alien or invasive species, experts say. For example, when replanting mangroves, the natural diversity and density should be taken into consideration, for which aerial photographs and even Google images prior to destruction could be used.

Vulnerable coastal communities that often depend on a few key livelihoods, such as fisheries or tourism, would also benefit under a blue economy, proponents say. Climate-related impacts and other shocks can severely affect these livelihoods and push people into poverty, and if coastal ecosystems are degraded and lost, this will reduce fish populations and tourism potential as well.

But thriving ecosystems would help mitigate these impacts while also providing a wide range of other goods and services, for example protection against floods, reduction of coastal erosion, and greater carbon sequestration — with mangroves and other blue carbon ecosystems being among the most efficient ecosystems in the world for climate change mitigation.

Coastal and marine areas in Sri Lanka are exposed to multiple sources of waste and land-based pollution that negatively affect ecosystems as well as people. Image courtesy of the SLYCAN Trust.

National and global alignments

Already, the shift toward a blue economy is enshrined in Sri Lanka’s national policy framework, “Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour,” which commits to “sustainable ocean resource management for a blue-green economy.” Other key policies and commitments include Sri Lanka’s nationally determined contributions under the Paris Agreement; the national adaptation plan for climate change impacts; and the national policy on conservation and sustainable use of mangrove ecosystems in Sri Lanka.

Within the global context, Sri Lanka’s efforts to move toward a blue economy align directly with the Sustainable Development Goals; the U.N. Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development 2021-2030; and the U.N. Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030. Sri Lanka is also the chair of the Mangrove Ecosystems and Livelihood Action Group under the Commonwealth Blue Charter and a member of the Indian Ocean Rim Association, which has a priority focus area on the blue economy as well as a “blue carbon hub.”

Its position as an island surrounded by the natural wealth of the Indian Ocean gives Sri Lanka enormous potential to invest in its blue economy, experts say. But they note this will require the sustainable and integrated management of coastal and marine spaces, inclusion of ecosystems into planning processes, consultation of technical experts, and a legal regime that facilitates these processes.

Awareness creation and training are crucial, as is further research focused on practical application and the improvement of livelihoods, covering topics such as marine ecology, blue carbon, sustainable fisheries and aquaculture, ecotourism, circular economy, renewable energy, control and treatment of land-based waste and pollution, and perceptions and risk notions among coastal populations.

Between the impacts of climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the need for sustainable development, coastal and marine ecosystem conservation can unlock many synergies for Sri Lanka’s blue economy, proponents say. Conservation and development do not have to be at odds, they argue: they can be mutually beneficial, support livelihoods, and address the causes and impacts of climate change.

Banner image: Mangroves are also among the most productive coastal ecosystems, providing a wide range of benefits and services, from flood protection to fish nurseries and carbon sequestration. Image courtesy of Kanchana Handunnetti.

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