“Safeguarding our oceans is not an option. It’s an imperative for future generations”

“Safeguarding our oceans is not an option. It’s an imperative for future generations”

Story by Alia Chebbab

Photo: Tatiana Antonelli Abella, MENA Oceans Summit 2024.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) ranks 6th out of 220 territories for how sustainable its ocean systems are. According to the Ocean Health Index (OHI), which measures how well ocean systems sustainably provide people with coastal livelihoods, biodiversity, clean water and carbon storage, the score for the UAE is 85 out of 100, exceeding the global average score of 73.

Earlier this week, the MENA Oceans Summit took place in Dubai, UAE, an event bringing together leaders, decision-makers, and practitioners to address pressing ocean health and blue economy issues. The event was hosted by leading social enterprise Goumbook under the patronage of the UAE Ministry of Climate Change and Environment.

The summit is the flagship pillar of the MENA Oceans Initiative, dedicated to restoring ocean ecosystems, tackling climate change, and ensuring sustainable development of blue economies through a collaborative, cross-sectoral framework.

“By bringing together diverse stakeholders, the MENA Oceans Summit serves as a unique platform that helps advance our collective understanding and foster regional collaboration to address the key marine issues pertinent to the MENA region,” said Razan Al Mubarak, the UN Climate Change High-Level Champion for Cop28 and president of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). “It’s a crucial gathering that supports our ongoing environmental commitments and acknowledges the sea’s integral role in the cultural and economic fabric of our region.”

Razan Al Mubarak
HE Razan Al Mubarak, UN Climate Change High Level Champion, COP28, IUCN President. MENA Oceans Summit 2024

Ocean health for a sustainable future

Oceans are vital to our planet’s ecosystem, providing oxygen, food and water. Covering 97% of the Earth’s water, they regulate climate and offer resources like genetic diversity, minerals, and renewable energy. Oceans support fisheries, sustain marine life, prevent erosion, and provide cultural services such as tourism. They also offer spiritual benefits, such as healing practices and rituals.

“As a society, we must recognise our profound dependence on nature, which generously provides the resources essential for our survival, well-being, and prosperity,” says Tatiana Antonelli Abella, founder of Goumbook. “At the heart of this interconnected web lies the ocean, it is the cradle of life. Collaborating with nature and safeguarding our oceans is not just an option; it’s an imperative for the benefit of future generations.”

ocean health index

Abella founded Goumbook in 2009 to promote sustainable living and green practices in the UAE. Over the last 15 years, the enterprise has worked on several campaigns, including a tree planting programme, raising awareness to reduce single use plastics, and highlighting the need to monitor and improve indoor air quality. Goumbook also recently initiated the Regenerative Agriculture Venture Programme, its first regional programme to look at solutions related to food systems and climate change mitigation.

The MENA Oceans Summit is committed to breaking down barriers and building bridges across geopolitical boundaries and divisions between different sectors, Abella says.

“The MENA region is connected by five seas, providing us with unique perspectives on ocean conservation, enabling us to learn from one another and provide insights on a global level,” she adds.  

“By fostering a strong, collective regional presence, the initiative aims to significantly enhance our influence and participation in international efforts dedicated to ocean conservation. This strategic alignment of regional perspectives seeks not only to assert our stance but also to ensure that our unique insights and needs are adequately represented in the global dialogue on ocean health.”

The impact of climate change on oceans

Climate change is significantly altering ocean environments, leading to various impacts such as ocean warming, sea level rise, ocean acidification, and loss of biodiversity. Human activities, such as burning fossil fuels, deforestation, industrial processes, and agricultural practices, have contributed about 1.3 degrees Celsius to global warming, driving sea level rise. 

According to the State of the Oceans 2024 report by Statista, the sea level variation increased by 9.8 centimetres in the past three decades, and it’s estimated to increase by up to 38 centimetres by 2100. In cities like New York (U.S.) or Manila (Philippines), the rise is projected to be around one metre by the end of the century, provoking an escalation in coastal erosion, more frequent and intense storm surges and flooding, and damage to wildlife habitats such as marshes and wetlands.

The report also states that a warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius in water temperatures could potentially destroy 70 to 90% of coral reefs – and an increase of two degree Celsius might lead to their complete disappearance. Despite only covering less than 1% of the sea floor, coral reefs provide shelter to more than 25% of marine species. From February 2023 to April 2024, approximately 54% of the world’s corals were experiencing heat stress high enough to cause bleaching.

coral bleaching

Oceans also absorb around one-quarter of atmospheric CO2, primarily from human activities like burning fossil fuels. This absorption helps mitigate climate change but alters seawater chemistry, leading to ocean acidification: over the past few decades, the average pH of oceans has decreased, endangering coral reefs and marine ecosystems. As acidity and temperature rise, the ocean’s ability to absorb CO2 decreases, exacerbating the effects of human CO2 emissions on the climate.

Marine pollution

Improper waste management on land and deliberate discarding of waste and toxins by ships in the oceans are the primary causes of marine pollution, with vast quantities of solid and liquid waste flowing into the oceans over the past decades, reports Statista. 

Plastic pollution is a planetary threat, affecting nearly every marine and freshwater ecosystem. According to the IUCN, at least 14 million metric tons of plastic enter the ocean annually, making up about 80% of all marine debris. Fish, seabirds, sea turtles, and marine mammals can get entangled in or ingest plastic, leading to suffocation, starvation, and drowning. Microplastics and nanoplastics in the oceans enter the marine food chain, ultimately reaching humans through seafood consumption.

Oil spills, caused by accidents involving tankers, pipelines, refineries and drilling rigs, and storage facilities, are detrimental to marine birds and animals that can either ingest oil or get covered by the oil slick, resulting in their injury or death. They also have devastating effects on humans, polluting the drinking water of entire communities.

Another waste found in oceans, according to Statista, are cigarette butts. They made up around 1.9 million of the 15.5 million waste items collected on coasts worldwide in 2022. In the UAE, Goumbook has been leading the Save the Butts campaign, cleaning public and private spaces from more than 1 million cigarette butts. These discarded butts are then repurposed into a sustainable alternative to plywood, avoiding deforestation at the same time.

Promoting sustainability and climate action in the UAE

According to Abella, the private sector plays a crucial role in advancing ocean conservation. “Businesses of all industries and sizes are uniquely positioned in terms of providing innovative solutions to the marketplace and advocating for policy that will drive large-scale change. They also carry a corporate responsibility to identify ways and instruments to reduce the environmental and social impact of their operations and educate their employees and stakeholders about it.”

As individuals and communities, it is important to educate ourselves and raise awareness to protect our environment, she says. “Look at your consumption habits, understand your carbon footprint and ways to reduce it – for example by minimising single-use plastic and monitoring your water usage. Be mindful of marine wildlife and their habitats, treat natural areas carefully and with respect. Eat responsibly sourced seafood, and avoid purchasing items that exploit sea life, such as coral jewellery, tortoiseshell accessories, or shark products.”


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