Our Burning Planet


Harness and protect the vast economic, environmental and social capital of our oceans

Harness and protect the vast economic, environmental and social capital of our oceans
A group of the Puntland Maritime Police Force patrolling the Gulf of Aden by speed boat during a media tour in Somalia’s semi-autonomous region of Puntland, in the Gulf of Aden, Somalia. 23 November 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE/Daniel Irungu)

As on land, the actions of criminal syndicates, uncouth industry leaders, transnational criminal enterprises, and corrupt or incompetent authorities erode the notion of the responsible use of the oceans.

The clash of Russian and Ukrainian navies in the Black Sea since March 2022 still captures media headlines. Alongside the Houthi missile and drone attacks on merchant shipping in the Red Sea since December 2023 in solidarity with the people of Gaza, both cases depict contemporary dangers of armed conflict at sea that interfere with the value of oceans for societies.

Furthermore, the quick escalation of piracy off Somalia as energised by the Houthi attacks in the Red Sea shows how quickly threats to good order at sea quickly morph into criminal activities requiring international responses if African countries cannot step in.

In contrast to these destructive warfighting and criminal scenarios, one also finds more constructive ideas, debates and research on the value of the oceans. These ideas cover a wide ambit from the seas as a climate regulator, a stock resource harbouring living and non-living resources, and their utility as a flow resource for shipping, leisure, trade, communications, information and ideas.

While shipping flows on the surface, ideas, communications, and global interconnectedness are sustained by hidden maritime infrastructure vested in the rapidly growing networks of subsea cable webs covering the seabed.

As outlined by Christian Bueger and Felix Mallin in Blue paradigms: understanding the intellectual revolution in global ocean politics (2023), academics have influenced the oceans agenda with their research. They deal with maritime security, the blue economy, the sea as an environment, and blue justice as topics that do not always receive the necessary attention in media and other reporting.

It seems that armed confrontation at sea is more in the news, but the vital interests of nations and the world in general reside in sustaining the oceans’ blue economy potential, protecting the oceans as an environment, and ensuring well-governed maritime justice sectors.

Maritime security, however, is the stabilising glue that keeps together their interdependent and connected nature as ocean sectors underpinning human security and their prosperity, but most vulnerable to warfighting, piracy and robbery. Having celebrated World Oceans Day on 8 June, we should also focus on the question of how to best harness and protect the vast economic, environmental, and social capital residing in the oceans.

Maritime security cooperation

One central tenet for secure oceans is cooperation. No single country or government can keep the oceans protected or ensure responsible ocean use and fend off unilateral oceans grab, overexploitation, pollution, and illegal practices. It is about cooperation vested in a liberal approach framework of building a global consensus on mature ocean use and agreeing to best practices and governance practices to uphold the oceans as clean and productive landscapes.

In this regard, the Djibouti Code of Conduct and Jeddah Amendment off the east coast of Africa, and the Yaoundé Code of Conduct on the west coast of the continent facilitate such cooperation to counter illegal activities and practices at sea.

A second important tool is that of capacity building which entails sharing resources and knowledge to national authorities and their maritime agencies through several programmes. Such programmes strengthen legal practices, reinforce maritime legislation updates to bring the national and international regulatory environment into step, provide training to policing contingents to also work at sea, and educate coastal communities on sustainable use of the oceans to ensure job and food security.

One important but difficult aspect is the coordination of the myriad of strategies, protocols, and conventions directed at safety at sea and mostly managed by the International Maritime Organisation. Although most countries and shipping agencies sign up to these regulatory rules, compliance remains a problem. One such difficulty manifests in the escalation of dark and unflagged vessels that defy maritime safety and security rules, such as the Russian dark fleet that is said to roam the oceans to circumvent sanctions in the wake of the Russia-Ukraine War.

Read more in Daily Maverick: War in Ukraine news hub

A more prospective difficulty is to build a broad consensus on the responsible use of the oceans to ensure sustainability and productive oceans for future generations. This lofty ideal plays out against the increase in the global criminal practice of illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing that is sweeping the oceans.

An emerging practice under close scrutiny is seabed mining as the technologies to mine the seabed are becoming all the more sophisticated, and economically viable. Alongside pollution, these practices hold dire consequences for the sea as an environment and its role to regulate global climatic conditions.

The issues outlined above collectively impact the notion of clean and productive oceans while the idea of the oceans being too vast for human impact to degrade its potential is long gone.

Currently, the oceans are characterised by several dead and overexploited zones where all life and ocean functions have ceased or are under critical pressure. It is thus so that the oceans as a source of economic growth and development (through a vibrant blue economy), a catalyst for a healthy and functional milieu (the sea as an environment) underpinned by a global consensus on the rule of law for fair distribution of benefits (blue justice) are brutally undermined by the fragility of a fourth pillar: cooperative maritime security.

African maritime strategies

Turning to Africa, the continent has a maritime strategy developed by the African Union called the African Integrated Maritime Strategy-2050 that sets a continental pathway to create safe and secure oceans to benefit optimally from the continent’s blue economic potential.

In this regard, Africa also has a Blue Economy Strategy, one for governance matters to direct ambitions on the continent’s blue economy and programmes directed at continental objectives.

Conceptually and programmatically, African decision-makers have recognised the importance of the continent’s oceans as an economic engine for development and prosperity. They have also stressed safety, security, and justice as primary regulatory domains to protect the economic and environmental advantages sought.

An unfortunate disjuncture plays out at regional and national levels where regional economic communities and member states in Africa struggle to bring their maritime houses in order.

Africa’s maritime territories almost double the land surface of the continent. This vast maritime landscape houses stock and flow resources that belong to Africans, but fall victim to national, regional, and international malpractices that promote maritime insecurity, economic disruptions, environmental degradation and upset the notion of blue justice and fair distribution of benefits to African societies.

I mentioned earlier that warfighting at sea is the biggest threat to harnessing the value of the oceans as a global flow and stock resource based on the notion of “the road that goes everywhere”. Where war is absent, other threats such as piracy, attacks on shipping, smuggling of arms, people and drugs, pollution, and the illegal exploitation of resources make ocean territories dangerous landscapes.

As on land, the actions of criminal syndicates, uncouth industry leaders, transnational criminal enterprises, and corrupt or incompetent authorities further erode the notion of the responsible use of the oceans.

Promoting a consciousness of the value of the oceans and building societal awareness from an early age can help prevent the misuse of our oceans. The inclusion of ocean-related issues in educational programmes and research, and building a maritime knowledge base among political players through skillful lobbying to counter sea blindness are two key approaches.

Both are reinforced with smart maritime capacity-building programmes between the private sector, academia, government and international agencies to strengthen the cooperative imperative alongside the use of professional maritime diplomacy.

Collectively, such skills and knowledge-building can make a significant difference in how people perceive their ocean environments. Together, the aforementioned are plausible mitigation measures to counter or slow down the ever-growing expanse of maritime threats and vulnerabilities that endanger the productiveness and future utility of the world’s oceans. DM

Prof Francois Vreÿ is Professor Emeritus (Military Science) and Research Coordinator at the Security Institute for​ Governance and Leadership in ​​Africa​ at Stellenbosch University.

Absa OBP

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