Status of our Coral Reefs: After 40 years of policy and development

Date February 9, 2009

“Existing problems are broadly attributed to Climate Change. But what we are witnessing is the effect of over 40 years of inadequate and inefficient policy.” Dr. Chua Thia-Eng set the tone of the evening with that solemn statement, but quickly turned to lighten up the audience with the following graphic from The Economist:


Dr. Chua gave an insightful and inspirational talk about how policies can impact the future of our environment, and stressed the need for a holistic approach to address existing problems. He was also candid during this talk, saying “to be honest, I’m responsible for some of today’s problems because of the policies I influenced in the 70s.”

He said that “problems are inter-related, not exclusive” and that in order to safe-guard habitats, the roles of entire ecosystems have to be considered. He elaborated on the function of PEMSEA and discussed how he had been working relentlessly for over a decade to develop and initiate an integrated approach to sustainable coastal development. He likened the Integrated Coastal Management (ICM) process to the ISO 14001 to illustrate its potential and methods.

“There is a need to improve policy efficiency… Sustainable development, we’ve not seen it.” Dr. Chua’s statements are less cynical than they are encouraging. His blunt comments help ground environmentalists and motivate them to strive for and achieve improved policy and methods. He reiterated throughout his talk the need for local governments to be prepared to get various stakeholders involved. He presented a few models in the region that have had successful responses to date since the implementation of ICM. He also highlighted the acute need to integrate international conventions to enhance policy.

“The east Asian region is a political, economic and pollution hotspot… East Asia is challenging the world…” Dr. Chua expressed that human survival and prosperity are inextricably linked and interconnected with what we do with nature and with ourselves as human beings. “It is us that determine our destiny on Earth, therefore we need to look at our own behaviour with nature.”

“One country can’t address all the problems alone, different countries have different capacities. There needs to be participation and partnership.” He said that to increase cost efficiency, Singapore needs to find a niche were we can play an important role. He said that given it’s history and political and economical structure, Singapore should “develop itself into a model for the region to address issues such as fresh water sanitation, landscaping, urban cities being able to sustain water, and developing cities as a watershed.” He “then punctuated the notion by saying “Singapore has not developed a vision yet.”

With all this talk about integration, it is crucial to be aware that we individuals, are not exempt from the process. As Dr. Chua mentioned, “our behaviour with nature” determines the shape of things to come. This “behaviour” doesn’t have to be literal or direct. Our consumer patterns, and things we do on a regular basis such the food we choose to eat (e.g. imported live reef fish vs. locally bred farm fish), can have a regional and domestic impact.

“Japan considers itself a developing country where ICM is concerned.” The ability to be humble and open to developing new ideas and approaches towards coastal development is fundamental to progress. Singapore being a state of the art nation may appear exempt from regional and global environmental issues, but the following facts may illustrate better how we should all be involved as care-takers of our coasts and oceans:

  • While Southeast Asia accounted for less than 10% of global area, 30% of the world’s reefs are found on our shores. It is also the location of the Coral Triangle, the richest centre of marine biological diversity.
  • 60% of Southeast Asia’s population live within 60km of the coast, the highest proportion in the world. (For Singapore it’s 100%, though most Singaporeans may not be aware)
  • 80% of species on Earth are found in our oceans
  • 10% of the global population lives below 10m above sea level
  • 80% of transport routes are in the seas (think about some of the things you own that might have arrived by sea)
  • 97% of the water on Earth is in our oceans (thus making it the future source of freshwater)
  • The oceans produce 100 metric tonnes of fish worth over USD 85 million/year.
  • The oceans comprise 4-5% of the global ecomony. In China, it comprises 11%
  • Oceans help build and maintain our atmosphere

More links

More about PEMSEA Partnerships in Environmental Management for the Seas of East Asia

from the International Year of the Reef 2008 website

The Status of Coral Reefs of the World: 2008 was released in Washington, DC in December 2008. The survey of the health of the world’s coral reefs identifies which reefs are recovering and which are degrading.

The report shows that climate change impacts, for example, bleaching and ocean acidification, and man-made pressures are now the major threats to reefs worldwide – with all reefs effectively under threat of major losses. The report predicts that mankind has about a decade to reduce carbon emissions or there will be major losses of reefs through ocean acidification impacts.

The full report is downloadable from The International Coral Reef Initiative (ICRI) website.

Chapter 9 details the status of reefs in Southeast Asia (launches PDF file). Highlights include:

  • Between 2004 and 2008, the condition of coral reefs improved in Thailand, Philippines, Vietnam and Singapore but declined in Indonesia and Malaysia (however, many reefs were not assessed);
  • Coral reef area estimates of just under 100 000 km2 for the region are probably a gross overestimate; recent GIS analysis in Thailand and Singapore shows reef area is approximately 10 times lower, possibly because non-reef sea areas were previously included;
  • Losses of seagrass habitats are estimated at 30 – 60% in Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand and Singapore; but largely un-assessed in other SEA countries;
  • More than 50% of the region’s mangroves have been lost, with 10% of the losses occurring between 1993 and 2003;
  • An assessment of MPAs of East Asia in 2005–2007 showed the number of MPAs with coral reefs increased from 178 in 2003 to 403 in 2007;

This “Status of coral Reefs of the World: 2008” is under the auspices of the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network (GCRNM) of the International Coral Reef Initiative (ICRI).

More media articles about this Report, and previous Reports by the GCRNM.

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