Issues concerning marine management in Africa are being tackled head-on by a range of international agreements. There are already four regional agreements across Africa that collectively seek to protect, manage and develop the marine and coastal environments of Africa and the Western Indian Ocean. These agreements have been widely endorsed. Almost all African coastal states have signed at least one regional agreement, and only three have not signed any regional agreements. Institutions such as the International Maritime Organization (IMO) are also actively creating new international agreements and protocols to address environmental issues such as marine pollution, oil spills and emissions from the shipping industry. IMO agreements and protocols are regularly updated in order to keep up to speed with new environmental challenges and the latest available scientific evidence. In so doing, the IMO has opened up pathways for African coastal states, shipping registries and ports to innovate and meet the challenges of sustainable development.
Africa’s growth in the maritime industry highlights the potential for positive impacts on its socioeconomic development, especially of coastal states, but it also poses challenges. As Africa’s maritime sector grows, with increasing marine traffic and cargo volumes through its ports, so does the potential for heavier environmental and social impacts. In this context, nascent businesses have an opportunity to ensure that, by complying with international standards from the outset, their operations will help to develop a maritime industry that conforms to environmental and social sustainability practices that will benefit current and future generations of Africans.
Green shipping is indicative of the strides made in the industry to address its various impacts on human health and the environment. It addresses the preservation and protection of the global environment from greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and other pollutants generated by the industry and contributes to achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals. In practice, the “green” standard entails compliance with the major IMO pollution-related conventions and their protocols that many coastal African countries have ratified.
The IMO commitment to sustainable development is designed to encourage innovation and technology transfer. The uptake of eco-friendly ship design by forward-thinking companies has increased over the past few years, with more companies producing and using eco-friendly ships as part of their operations. As marine pollution becomes more heavily regulated, investment in new ships that are compliant with current (and anticipated future) IMO regulations is becoming a competitive advantage. Ships that comply with green standards are considered more likely to be exempt from environmental taxes and fines, which could represent considerable savings over the operational life of a ship. In effect, the higher the green standard of the ship at the beginning of its life, the longer its operational life may be without the need for potentially expensive retrofitting. In addition, compliant ships are considered inherently more fuel-efficient, which also contributes to substantial operational cost savings.
With more than 75 percent of the planet covered by water, marine pollution is one of the most intractable global environmental challenges, and one the world will face for many generations to come. Shipping now accounts for the majority of the world’s trade transportation, and the sheer volume of freight being transported means that a certain level of marine pollution is inevitable.
Although the shipping sector has recognized its role in environmental and social protection, and has made great strides in preventing and reacting to oil spills—which are a visible environmental impact of shipping—mitigating risks to the oceans remains a concern (Figure 1).
Another environmental impact of shipping and maritime activities is the generation of hazardous wastes and other marine pollutants from ships at sea. During normal operations, crews and passengers aboard ships produce sewage and wastewater. Historically, the typical method of disposing of waste generated on board a ship was to discharge it directly into the sea. Bilge water (i.e., any water that does not drain over the sides of the ship) may be contaminated with oil, human waste, detergents, pitch and other chemicals that may be harmful to the environment. To address this issue, the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) was adopted. Since its inception in 1973, numerous annexes have addressed operational and accidental causes of ship-based pollution. For example, Annex V of MARPOL prohibits ocean dumping (other than limited wastes such as food waste). However, pollution at sea is notoriously difficult to police, and international monitoring indicates that dumping at sea persists at very significant levels.
Oceans, coastlines, estuaries and other coastal areas may suffer from ecological damage as a result. For coastal states in Africa, marine pollution also creates negative secondary effects on human health and socioeconomic activities such as tourism, aquaculture and fishing.
Plastics are another very visible form of marine pollution that have become a source of major international concern. Although most of the plastics in the oceans originate from pollution on land and reach the sea through rivers, approximately 20 percent of the sources of plastic pollution are marine-based, through both legal and illegal dumping. Outside of oceanic convergence zones, which are known as floating “garbage patches” of plastics and other wastes, such debris also tends to accumulate in shipping lanes and fishing areas. Plastics are immensely durable and some persist in the marine environment for hundreds of years. Scientists are only now beginning to understand the risks of microscopic plastic fragments entering marine food chains, including bio-accumulation in apex predators and in humans consuming food from marine sources.