Coastal ecosystems and associated watersheds provide a wide range of services to coastal communities.
Wetlands purify water and offer protection against floods. Mangroves protect coasts and their populations by reducing the damage caused by storms and tsunamis. Coral reefs provide breeding grounds for fish and leisure activities. A valuation of the 166,000 hectares of reefs off the Main Hawaiian Islands estimated the ecosystem provides US $360 million per year to the state’s economy, capturing the benefits to recreation, real estate, research, and fishing industries (Cesar and van Beukering 2004). This enormous sum does not even include the invaluable benefits of shoreline protection against natural hazards or the net present worth provided by sea life that will inhabit the reef in the future.
Natural services provided by ocean and coastal ecosystems are fundamental to the prosperity of tens of millions of people who live on American coasts and a large swath of businesses indirectly connected to coastal economies, yet they are under threat from a variety of sources. Stewardship lapses have had major economic impact on surrounding communities, resulting in the functional collapse of certain commercially valuable ecosystems, including oyster reefs, fish stocks, and mangroves.
Calculating the Costs and Benefits
In one example of profiting from ecosystem maintenance, Vietnamese communities planted and protected approximately 12,000 hectares of mangroves at a cost of US $1.1 million, saving annual expenditures on dyke maintenance of US $7.3 million. In an Apo Island, Philippines case study it was found that a one-time $75,000 investment by private sector entities in 1 km2 of coral reefs returned between $31,900 and $113,000 annually in increased fish production and local dive tourism (White, Vogt and Arin, 2000). While it typically costs more to restore a degraded ecosystem than to avoid degradation, there are, nonetheless, many cases in which the benefits from restoring degraded ecosystems far outweigh the costs.
Doing none of the above, however, leaves cities, families, and businesses at increased risk of natural disasters. While it is difficult to quantify, it is widely accepted that the loss of mangroves and reefs dramatically exacerbated Hurricane Katrina’s damage to coastal U.S. states, which some estimates peg at $81.2 bn. In India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Thailand, areas with dense coastal vegetation and healthy coral reefs were markedly less damaged by the 2004 tsunami than areas without. Where mangroves and other coastal habitats had been destroyed, often illegally, the waves were able to penetrate much further inland, destroying homes, washing away farmland and devastating people and livelihoods (Citigroup estimated the total damage in the four countries at over $15 bn).
The end result of short-sighted waste of these natural barriers is that governments and businesses are now spending billions of dollars to repair and rebuild these communities and make up for lost productivity. Ensuring our leaders are aware of all the economic costs and benefits of maintaining certain coastal ecosystems is imperative to making progress in sound community development that will last.
Working Across Sectors
Effective protection and restoration of coastal ecosystems requires the active participation of a broad cross-section of stakeholders – the engagement of communities, businesses, and NGOs is essential for success. Collaboration across sectors helps information flow that reinforces sustainable use of resources and maximizes the net social and economic benefits of natural coastal infrastructure.
By working together, policymakers and businesses can implement practices that balance business and conservation to ensure resource needs are met and prevent ecological collapses that lead to waste of public wealth.
Industry leaders and government decision makers are becoming increasingly aware that maintaining, restoring, and enhancing services provided by ecosystems, such as mangroves and wetlands, often cost significantly less than alternative man-made infrastructure, such as wastewater treatment plants and sea dykes. Municipalities are finding ways to enhance their structural and economic security by working with the private sector in these types of maintenance and protection projects. Ecosystem conservation and restoration are viable economic development options that support a range of policy goals, including food security, urban development, and poverty alleviation.