Mangroves along the shoreline of the Gulf of Aqaba in the Red Sea, bordering the Sinai Desert. These are important plants for carbon sequestration.

Protecting our planet’s life support system: the importance of coastal ecosystems

The coastal ecosystem is a unique and vital part of our planet’s life support system, where the sea and the land meet, and countless species find food, shelter, and breeding grounds. In this article, Venter Mwongera, Communications and Advocacy Coordinator at ABN, explores the beauty and complexity of coastal ecosystems, within the Sinai desert, the Gulf of Aqaba and the Red Sea; the threats they face, and what we can do to protect and preserve them.

The coastal ecosystem is a place of constant change, where the forces of the sea and the land collide in a never-ending dance. It is a place of endless beauty and complexity, a world of delicate balances and intricate relationships. As I walked along the shoreline of the Gulf of Aqaba, I was struck by the diversity of life that surrounded me. From the glistening scales of over 1,200 fish species darting through the waves, to the blissful coral reefs and mangroves that dot the shoreline of the northern tip of the Red Sea, there was life everywhere I looked.

But, as I continued my journey, I began to notice signs of change. The once-pristine beaches have been littered with non-biodegradable waste, the water was murkier than I had ever seen it. It has been my job to document and understand these changes, sensitize various audiences of such experiences to form a critical mass and partner in protecting these fragile ecosystems for future generations. But as I worked to gather data to inform communication products and raise awareness, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of urgency. For the coastal ecosystem is not just a scientific curiosity, but a vital part of our planet’s life support system.

Preserving coastal ecosystems contributes to the resilience of our planet
It is a unique combination of desert and marine environments where the land and the sea meet, nutrients are exchanged, and countless species find food, shelter, and breeding grounds. Seagrasses, a type of marine vegetation found in the shallow waters of the Gulf, are known for their ability to capture and store carbon in their tissues and sediments. In fact, seagrasses can sequester carbon up to 40 times faster than tropical rainforests, making them an important carbon sink. Other types of vegetation found along the coast, such as mangroves and salt marshes, can also sequester carbon and help mitigate the impacts of climate change.

The preservation and restoration of these coastal ecosystems have significant benefits for both the environment and human well-being, including carbon sequestration, protection against erosion and storm surges, and providing habitat for biodiversity. With humans continuing to pollute and destroy coastal ecosystems, we risk not only the loss of individual species but the collapse of entire ecosystems. As I stood on the beach, watching the waves crash against the shore, some members of ABN’s partner, the Nature Conservation Egypt (NCE) kayaked by. The heat in the Sinai desert was intense, and one might wonder how challenging it could be to work in such a region. However, it was evident that the NCE had undertaken various interventions. For example, the restoration and rehabilitation of degraded ecosystems, ecotourism, and community-based conservation. This approach created opportunities for tourists to visit the region and even participate in ecosystem conservation efforts. Other intervention approaches by NCE included advocacy and policy engagement, climate change mitigation and adaptation, research and monitoring, environmental education and awareness, sustainable agriculture and fisheries, protected area management, and conservation of endangered species. After a moment’s thought, I realized that all was not lost.

Building on the NCE’s efforts, we can work to protect the coastal ecosystem from multinationals’ intent to commercialize the coastal ecosystem. Efforts such as cleaning up beaches, reducing pollution, and creating awareness about the crucial role of coastal ecosystems in mitigating climate change are important. Promoting political goodwill to support conservation efforts for these fragile yet vital ecosystems, as well as creating an enabling policy environment, can further strengthen the resilience and adaptability of life on our planet.

As I walked from the beach, I spotted antlions. I stared at their funnel-shaped sand traps marvelling at their ability to use such a technique to capture other insects for food. I also saw scarab beetles in the Sinai desert, and with awe, I appreciated their crucial role as decomposers. I noticed a small group of youths playing near the water’s edge. They were looking for seashells, splashing in the waves, digging in the sand, and laughing with pure joy. I realized that if we could harness this joy in these youths, to build on their sense of wonder, respect, and stewardship for the coastal ecosystem, then perhaps we could help ensure that it would continue to thrive for generations to come. As the sun began to set, I felt a sense of renewed purpose and hope.

I watched these youths for a moment, and then began to walk over to join my NCE colleagues, to travel back to Sharm El Sheikh. For a while I has been overwhelmed by the challenges facing the coastal ecosystem, but I know the potential for positive change is possible. With a combination of indigenous and scientific knowledge, political goodwill, and public engagement, we can protect and preserve this vital part of our planet’s heritage. The coastal ecosystem is a precious gift that we must do everything in our power to protect.

Nature Conservation Egypt is among the 21 partners of ABN collaborating in the project of conserving biodiversity through strengthening community and ecosystem resilience. 

 Look out for an article in the next newsletter on how a combination of indigenous and scientific knowledge, could contribute to the preservation of the coastal ecosystem.