Hot and bothered – the Northern Mozambique Channel

Bleached coralsUnrestrained growth in emissions is a symptom of our appetite for growth – in population levels, consumption patterns and fossil fuel-mediated technologies. Climate change and the transgressing of multiple planetary boundaries, with human society requiring 1.5 planet earths today, are the defining issues that we face in the Anthropocene.

My focus is a region we now recognize as aMap-NMCi with locator second peak for coral reef biodiversity globally – the Northern Mozambique Channel in Eastern Africa. The NMC is in the hottest part of the Western Indian Ocean and parts of it have experienced 3 major bleaching events – in 1984, 1998 and 2010. Reefs recovered well from each of these, demonstrating high resilience. But how long will this resilience last?

Five countries border the NMC, and four of these have among the lowest income and Human Development Index levels globally. Two local factors are about to turn the tide here, compounding the already-present threat from climate change:

First – the discovery of some of the world’s largest natural gas reserves will result in a fossil fuel and economic boom over the next 2-3 human generations.

Second – with >50% of the national populations below 15 years of age, a population bulge will rise up the age pyramid over the next 50 years. Even median UN estimates of population growth are worrying – at 107 million today, population has grown over 5* since 1950 when statistics start, and will grow another 5* by 2100, and still growing. Within 100 km of the coast, we estimate a modest 10 million people. The same median growth rates will result in just over 40 million in 2100, but migrants sucked in by prosperity and urbanization could more than double this figure.Photographer

But compounded growth is the real problem. Some back-of-the-envelope estimates, assuming business as usual fuelled by a natural gas boom: – median incomes may grow by over 3*, and technology/energy affluence by 5*. While population levels 5 times higher than today are worrying, who would deny countries with low GDPs the right to grow them by a modest 3* by 2100, and technology access by, say, 5*? The circles for each variable appear to expand calmly over the century.

The problem becomes clear when these are compounded together, estimating total economic growth or impact, at >80 times what it is today.

Growth figure

We recently surveyed the state of coral reefs in N. Mozambique – fish are ALREADY depleted across the coastal/islands system (except in small protected areas) and vulnerable reef locations DID suffer massive coral mortality in 1998, a full 17 years ago. There is no question that multiple local thresholds are being crossed. The ecosystem will not withstand the current rate of warming AND 80* greater local impacts, and starting next month (January 2016), the current global bleaching event will start to show its effects in the Mozambique Channel.

With declines in coral reef health will go the provisioning services that feed 85% of the fishermen of the region, and the supporting/recreational services that draw 100% of its tourists. It cannot be morally and ethically right, let alone economically or socio-ecologically rational, to accelerate this outcome.

mean-SSTSo what to do? My fellow panel members have talked about emissions actions – but just as importantly, actions at local, national and regional levels to relieve multiple stressors on coral reefs, and to build or rebuild the resilience of reefs and people that depend on them, are essential. This is where governments must open space for civil society and their representative Non-Government Organizations, academia and the private sector to play their part in finding solutions and minimizing change – such as in generating new knowledge, communicating scenarios, taking action and proposing management and policy options.