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The blue economy became green and brown before we cashed in



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This week held big Blue Economy Conference was held in Nairobi, and all manner of important people from around Africa and the world were in attendance.

If you were chatting with your buddies over a drink, and therefore didn’t have to be very serious, you would describe the blue economy as the exploitation of key water resources (rivers, oceans, and seas) for economic gain, sustainably.

Some figures about the value of the African blue economy were thrown around at the conference, with Africa’s coastline currently hosting a mouth-watering maritime industry worth $1 trillion per year. It gets better. There were projections that it would worth $3 trillion in two years’ time.

However, Africa hardly exploits is blue economy, although other global players are busy off its coastline hoovering up our fish with giant trawlers – and we are still unable to anything about it. At least until the Somali pirates came on the scene.

You will remember those stories of Somali pirates who terrorised the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean until recently. We were told that they started out as patriots and “aqua nationalists” who took to the ocean to chase away Japanese and European trawlers stealing their fish, and dumping waste.

Before long, they broadened their horizons and decided to tax global shipping along the eastern African coast, as restitution for their losses.

Anyway, these past failings led several people on social media to strike a cautionary about the promise of a blue economy.

Economist David Ndii noted that Africa had not gotten rich tilling land, which is plentiful and more accessible, and it was therefore unlikely to hit pay dirt throwing hooks and nets into its waters.

As it happens, three years the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) invited a number of African journalists who reporting or commenting on continental geopolitical and security issues, to visit its headquarters in Stuttgart to hear their side of the story about what they were doing in Africa.

It was both and educative and humbling trip. The US has several military bases in Germany, but in Stuttgart alone it had more air power than all of Africa’s militaries combined.

You can’t fake being a super power. So it was that during a presentation on the challenges of dealing with pirates and international traffickers in Africa, we were shown a map to explain how much domination the coastal countries had over their waters beyond the range you could control with catapults, spears and AK-47s as at around 2000.

Around the whole of this Mother Africa, there were less than half a dozen serious naval vessels that could repulse pirates and other intruders, including illegal fishermen, anything beyond spitting distance of their coastlines.

Just like land, if you don’t control your waters, you can’t fish them at scale. As at 2015 there had been a little improvement in the control a couple of countries exerted over their coastal resources, but only just. Most of it was funded as part of the wider anti-terror and anti-piracy project with foreign powers.

The blue economy possibilities for Africa by that reckoning are primarily a state capacity – and therefore political – question.

On the second day of the conference, there was a story about Malawi’s Lake Chilwa. Like Lake Chad, which is almost history now, Chilwa was reported to be nearly 60 per cent dry. They are not the only African lakes or rivers in their death throes around the continent.

Climate change is doing a lot of damage to Africa’s waters, yes, but most of the biggest blows to them have come from our ungrateful hands. We were a bit blindsided by the water hyacinth on Lake Victoria, but it’s us who are killing it by turning in into a vast sewer.

Last year a major environmental study found that up to 95 per cent of plastic polluting the world’s oceans pours in from just ten rivers. Two of those rivers – the Nile and Niger – are ours.

There are parts of the world where you do actually see blue rivers and lakes when you are flying over. It’s very rare in Africa to see that today. There are only isolated along the mighty River Nile that are blue from above. Most of it is brown.

And Lake Victoria is largely green from up there these days. The blue economy has become green and brown before we have exploited it.

Despite all the above, the blue economy conference was still an important moment for the continent. We have woken up to the fact that it is a prize worth playing for. Hopefully, some countries will do what it takes to win, beginning with being more responsible stewards of our waters.

-The author is publisher of and explainer [email protected]