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Split view of mangrove roots underwater and above the surface at a tropical coastline.

Coastal communities need resilient ecosystems and infrastructure

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Coastal communities need resilient ecosystems and infrastructure

Small island developing states (SIDS) are highly vulnerable to climate change impacts. Enhancing their resilience is crucial and can inspire innovative approaches that benefit coastal communities globally. Here we explore solutions that mitigate storm impacts, preserve freshwater resources and protect infrastructure.

Maria Sköld, Karina Barquet / Published on 21 March 2024

Nearly 40% of the global population resides within 100 km of coastlines, facing risks from rising sea levels and increasing extreme weather events. Low-lying areas and islands are particularly affected – a single hurricane can devastate an island’s economy, exceeding its annual GDP, as noted by the World Bank. Caribbean nations, according to an IMF study, are up to seven times more prone to natural disasters compared to larger countries.

What can coastal regions do to bolster their resilience? Among the most effective approaches are the restoration and safeguarding of coastal ecosystems. These ecosystems provide essential services that can be categorized into three primary functions:

1. Natural defence against water hazards.

Coastal ecosystems serve as natural barriers, shielding communities from flooding and sea-level rise. Mangroves, for instance, can reduce wave energy by up to 66%. Seagrass beds reduce wave energy by up to 85% and coral reefs by as much as 97%. The absence of coral reefs could double flood-related damages and triple costs from frequent storms.

2. Protecting access to food and freshwater.

Besides acting as natural breakwaters, coral reefs support fish habitats, aiding food security and livelihoods. Coastal wetlands can also mitigate erosion risks, help purify freshwater and prevent saltwater intrusion that leads to soil degradation.

3. Sequestering greenhouse gas emissions.

Coastal ecosystems are vital for both climate adaptation and mitigation. Wetlands, salt marshes, mangroves and seagrasses play a key role in climate regulation by harbouring significant carbon stocks in their substrates. They sequester more carbon than terrestrial forests of the same size.

Alarmingly, coastal ecosystems are disappearing at a rapid rate in the past few decades. In the Caribbean, it is estimated that over 50% of mangroves, 50% of seagrasses, and 80% of coral reefs, have been lost. These staggering losses underscore the urgent need to protect and restore these ecosystems for sustainability, disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation efforts.

SEI research explores new solutions

SEI’s research explores the role of coastal and island ecosystems and their connection between ocean and freshwater ecosystems worldwide. For example, the Innovacuba project, a collaboration between SEI and Cuban agencies, has been exploring climate adaptation innovations in Cuba for four years. Additionally, SEI is partnering with Latin American and Caribbean countries to study locally led climate adaptation through nature-based solutions. The SEI Initiative on Gridless Solutions is enhancing understanding of how small-scale, decentralized and modular approaches can bolster societial resilience and preparedness for unforeseen challenges. Many of these solutions, like marine multiuse platforms, are particularly well-suited for vulnerable coastal and island communities.

Small islands and coastal communities are actively exploring new approaches to address their special circumstances and vulnerabilities in a changing climate. They are spaces of innovation and nature-based solutions that should inspire communities across the world.

Karina Barquet, SEI Water, Coasts and Ocean Team Lead

These projects emphasize the potential of adaptation strategies, from tapping into the emerging blue bioeconomy, enhancing local livelihoods to fostering regional partnerships and developing sustainable marine infrastructures.

Design and development by Soapbox.