Environment and development
in coastal regions and in small islands
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By linking up culture with the natural and social sciences, researchers and local communities can help find a sustainable equilibrium for coastal cities.

Coastal regions and small islands are extraordinarily complex centres of all kinds of activity. These mosaics of humanity are home to 60% of the planet’s population, if you define coastal as extending 60 km inland. This will probably grow to 75% by the year 2005 due to a combination of population growth, migration and urbanization. Sixteen of the world’s 23 cities with more than 2.5 million inhabitants are by the shore, as is a large part of the most varied and productive ecosystems vital to feeding the Earth’s people.

"Everything overlaps," says Alice Auréli of the Division of water sciences, "problems like water management and pollution, fishing, coastal erosion, tourism, preservation of old buildings and survival of local crafts."

For example, if people dump rubbish and dirty water into the sea, the fish die and stocks fall. Fishers then have to be much more aggressive towards the environment, like using dynamite. This in turn destroys coral reefs and thus their ability to serve as breakers against the waves, which then reach the shore with full force and cause erosion.

Traditional housing and seashore hotels get damaged and a town loses its ability to pull tourists and thus part of its resources. As a result, it has even less money than before to invest in waste disposal and water treatment.

Such interlocking problems clearly cannot be tackled by one-off or purely technical solutions. So experts from diverse fields - hydrologists, geologists, biologists, ecologists, sociologists and architects - are starting to learn to do what they are least good at - working together.

"There’s no tradition in international organizations or universities of linking up natural and social sciences and culture," admits Dirk Troost, who coordinates the initiative entitled Environment and Development in Coastal Regions and in Small Islands (CSI).

As French university teacher Maryvonne Bodiguel explains, "it’s the most tricky thing to bring about, as so many disciplines are shut off in their own methods, terminology and images when it comes to making decisions. But the effort should be made to break out of this when multi-sectoral management is called for."

This is being done at UNESCO which, since last year, has been promoting integrated coastal management. "Scientific knowledge is predominately a Western construct," explains Kenneth Ruddle, professor at Kwansei Gakuin University in Japan. It is "based on often narrow divisions among disciplines in contrast to other great traditions based on holism." Ruddle says those taking part in the CSI should not just work together but also open up to the skills and experience of local people in their quest for this vision. "Among fishers in coastal-marine societies, for example, such knowledge combines empirical information on fish behaviour, marine physical environments and fish habitats, and the interactions among the components of ecosystems to ensure regular catches and, often, long-term resource sustainment."

This "integrated" approach will be applied first to four areas - freshwater management, support for coastal communities who depend on preservation of biological diversity, migration to towns and quality of the environment, and the social effects of coastal erosion and rise in sea-levels. In 1998-99, the programme has budgeted $1.75 million for field projects, training activities and above all to strengthen links between groups of researchers and users, politicians and donors. After a period of review and consultation, the next biennium will be a test for the CSI, "even if it takes three or four years before we see meaningful results", says Troost. The aim will be to show the viability of the idea through a series of pilot projects, so as to increase the number of participants and find further funding.


Things seem to be working out well at the first target of the programme - the medina (old quarter) of the Moroccan town of Essaouira. The town’s 80,000 inhabitants make it the country’s third biggest fishing port. The threat to the medina comes from overburdening water resources by excessive use and pollution, seepage of salt water into the water table through over-pumping, as well as coastal erosion and a crumbling and inadequate infrastructure. "It’s a bit of a test case," says Auréli. "We’re checking out the general and multi-sectoral level of participation but also partnership between towns in rich and poor countries based on present cultural links.
Setting off on a new track in Essaouira

"After a request for UNESCO intervention from the mayor of Essaouira, we went to St. Malo, in France, because the two towns are similar. Essaouira was built by a disciple of the architect Vauban, who built St. Malo. They have the same problems of erosion of the city walls and pressure from tourists on the water supply.

"Municipalities can no longer expect the government or international organizations to solve all their problems, so they have to draw on their own resources. But UNESCO doesn’t want to be their mother, telling them how to run the show. We just want to serve as a liaison."

Sophie Boukhari

Extract from UNESCO SOURCES Bridging the great divide No. 93 September 1997

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