East African Countries Funded to Contain Marine Contamination

ANTANANARIVO, Madagascar, July 6, 2004 - A well-funded effort to stop pollution from entering the Western Indian Ocean was announced today at a meeting of environment ministers in Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar. The ocean in this region is rich with marine life and mangrove forests, seagrass beds, lagoons and coral reefs.

The three-year, US$11 million dollar project, funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and the government of Norway, will help eight countries create action plans to curb sewage, chemicals and other pollutants coming from the land into the region’s rivers and coastal waters.

The project was announced at the opening of the Fourth Conference of the Parties to the Nairobi Convention, which continues through Thursday. This mechanism, established by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), is the way in which global treaties on the marine environment are implemented in the region.

The project, which is being implemented by UNEP, will strengthen pollution laws, regulations and cooperation regionally and nationally for the eight participating countries - The Comoros, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, the Seychelles, South Africa and Tanzania.

The Western Indian Ocean holds more than 11,000 species of plants and animals, and conservationists are keen to protect the dugong, a slow-moving vegetarian marine mammal; and the coelacanth, a fossil fish.


Fishermen get lucky in the Western Indian Ocean. (Photo by Jose Cort courtesy NOAA)
More than a fifth of the world’s tropical inshore fish species swim these waters, and the shores of the Western Indian Ocean provide nesting sites for an estimated 70 percent of the Earth’s marine turtles.

Some 30 million people in the five mainland countries of Kenya, Mozambique, Somalia, South Africa and Tanzania and on the islands of the Comoros, Madagascar, Mauritius, Reunion and the Seychelles, are thought to depend upon the area’s marine and coastal resources for food, livelihoods and recreation.

But, in common with many areas of the developing world, the Western Indian Ocean being polluted and altered by unplanned urbanization, discharges of untreated sewage, habitat destruction, unsustainable fishing practices and overexploitation of resources.

Measures likely to form part of the national action plans include improving the safe disposal of wastes, improving the siting of rubbish dumps, developing wetlands to naturally filter and detoxify sewage, and improved recycling schemes.


Mangroves in the Kiunga Marine Reserve, Kenya (Photo by Kate Newman courtesy World Wildlife Fund)
Mangroves in urban areas are currently used as dumping grounds for all sorts of waste, including sewage and livestock manure, the Western Indian Ocean Marine Science Association warned in March. "There is much evidence that mangrove wetlands have a high capacity for nutrient and heavy metal absorption and may be particularly able to deal with sudden high nutrient loads," the scientists wrote in an article for their association's newsletter.

These urban mangroves are already carrying out the function of urban water purification, by filtering dumped or discharged domestic wastewater, the scientists wrote. "The conservation and maintenance of urban mangroves may be essential to limiting the contamination of coastal water resources."

But, the marine scientists cautioned, the urban mangrove is a habitat in severe danger due to extensive cutting, industrialization and urban expansion.

East Africa has a greater diversity of mangrove species than West Africa, the World Wildlife Fund says. The rural mangroves provide important wintering and resting places for migratory birds and provide year-round habitat for rare shorebirds and seabirds. Animals that live in or visit the ecoregion include Sykes monkeys, the threatened dugong, and five species of sea turtles - the olive ridley, loggerhead, leatherback, green, and hawksbill.

The coastal waters of the Western Indian Ocean are a major sea route for large petroleum and oil tankers supplying the world with products from the Middle East. Major shipping routes run close to the coral reefs near the port of Djibouti and Port Sudan and ships often discharge oily wastes and sewage.


Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar, on the Western Indian Ocean (Photo courtesy UN Habitat)
Most Eastern African coastal municipalities do not have the capacity to handle the vast quantities of sewage and solid wastes they generate every day. For example, in Kenya the Mombasa Municipal Council can handle only 30 percent of the waste generated, according to a 1996 report.

Residues of fertilizers and pesticides from agricultural inputs in the hinterland enter main drainage systems and are washed into the sea where they have cumulative effects in the marine and coastal environment.

UNEP sees the new project as a good fit for the wider issue of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals as they relate to poverty eradication, the provision of drinking water, and hunger reduction.

The UN agency said the project also fits well with the environmental component of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development and the Plan of Implementation of the World Summit on Sustainable Development adopted in Johannesburg in 2002.