Seaports in the Tropics: Environmental Challenges and Solutions 

By Klaudia Formela | June 29, 2020

International Day of the Tropics

On this International Day of the Tropics, we celebrate the incredible potential, diversity and accomplishments of the nations of the Tropics, as well as bring attention to the unique challenges this region faces. The Tropics entail the countries positioned in the areas known as the tropic of Cancer north of the Equator (Mexico, Northern Africa, Middle East, South and South-East Asia) and the tropic of Capricorn south of the Equator (South America, southern Africa and Australia). On top of these two tropics, above and below each of these respectively, are the closely related subtropical regions.[1]

The United Nations established the International Day of the Tropics in 2016 to celebrate all the progress in addressing challenges within the region as well as bring awareness to the unique challenges the countries in the tropics face.[2] The United Nations emphasises explicitly the crucial role of the Tropics to achieve Sustainable Development Goals 2030 (SDGs).[3]

This post aims to share expertise and knowledge which acknowledge the challenges and start a dialogue on solutions and actions that can be taken to address these.[4]

Countries in the tropics and subtropics face specific environmental challenges due to their unique positions across the Equator. Currently, the region, which is characterised by warm temperatures and a high level of precipitation, faces various environmental and socio-economic challenges and is a crucial region of focus for global sustainable goals to be achieved.[5] These challenges include but are not limited to, climate change, deforestation, logging, urbanisation and demographic changes.[6] The latter of which is of specific importance to note as the region will “host most of the world’s people and two-thirds of its children” by 2050.[7] With such continuous demographic growth, special attention needs to be given to seaports in the region as they are not only at the heart of coastal port cities’ economies but also at the forefront of climate change. Within this post, we would thus like to focus on the environmental challenges faced by seaports in the Tropics.

Environmental Challenges at Seaports in the Tropics

The tropic as a region is a crucial area for making progress in terms of achieving SDGs. It also plays an essential role in terms of global climate change – due to tropical forests necessary for carbon sequestration and the vast opportunities for renewable water resources.[8] The region also faces the issue of deforestation, which has a substantial effect on global warming and a variety of environmental threats.[9] Environmental hazards such as extreme weather events, for instance, tropical storms, floods, droughts or heat waves, show a pattern consistent with global warming in terms of the noted increase in intensity or frequency of these events.[10] In the context of climate change, these already difficult to tackle hazards are likely to become an even more significant challenge for seaports across the tropics – emphasising the need for effective mitigation and adaptation strategies.

Such extreme weather conditions as extreme precipitation (an, in turn, coastal flooding), heatwaves and high wind events are likely to become more intense over time, including tropical and extratropical storms which can bring about disruption and devastating infrastructure damage at ports.[11] As a region, the tropics are particularly vulnerable to these weather extremes increasing in intensity.[12] Coastal flooding, as a result of tropical cyclones and the sea-level rising, has been identified as a particularly severe threat to seaports.[13] Although all coastal areas that experience subsidence are at risk, the foreseen increased intensity of tropical storms across the tropics region puts the area in an exceptionally vulnerable position.[14]

To elaborate, sea-level rise, temperature and precipitation increases and extreme wind events can indicate various impacts on ports, respectively: damages in port infrastructure and cargo, higher port maintenance costs, sedimentation in port channels, operational disruptions, risks for land transport links, as well as staff health risks, higher energy consumption for cooling purposes, navigation restrictions, problems with port equipment and berthing issues.[15] A working paper which set out to rank port cities with high exposure and vulnerability to climate extremes gives useful insight into just how vulnerable the tropical ports are to environmental hazards. The working paper provides insight explicitly into the countries, which will be most affected in terms of assets (in US dollars) and population affected.[16] For instance, the paper identified 11 countries most vulnerable to environmental threats, such as the sea-level rise and storm surge, in terms of assets exposed costs, which in total amount to a cost of 35,000 billion dollars.[17] Out of these 11 countries identified, 8 are in the tropical or the subtropical regions.[18]

These countries (and the respective share of the exposure costs in %) are India (11% of total cost), Thailand (3%), Vietnam (3%), Bangladesh (2%), Egypt (2%), Indonesia (1%), China (21%) and Japan (5%).[19] Additionally, the paper’s category of “other developing countries”, which accounts for 2%, most likely includes some countries from the tropical region as this region consists of a large proportion of the world’s developing countries.[20] The working paper also identified how much of the population in each nation are exposed to environmental threats, with the total population affected estimate amounting to 147 million people. Out of the 15 countries identified as most vulnerable 13 of the countries are located in the tropical or the subtropical regions.[21]

These countries are namely (from the most amount of population exposed to least): India (20%), Bangladesh (12%), Vietnam (9%), Thailand (4%), Myanmar (3%), Egypt 3%, Nigeria (2%), Indonesia (2%), Cote D’Ivoire (2%), Brazil (1%) and Ecuador (1%), additionally affected are China (21%) and Japan (5%).[22] The paper’s category of “other developing countries” accounts for 3%, and as in the case of the assets affected estimate above, these most likely include developing countries in the tropics.[23]

This paper not only supports the importance of addressing the unique environmental vulnerability of tropical seaports but at the same time points us towards the specific nations in need of taking appropriate mitigation and adaptation action. If appropriate measures and strategies are applied within the most vulnerable port cities across the tropics, the number of assets and populations affected can be significantly minimised. Taking appropriate actions promises consistent resilience and allows to better the efforts and progress towards achieving SDGs. It is essential to take steps within the region, for the progress not to be hindered by devastating environmental circumstances.

Call for Action

The aforementioned environmental challenges call for the international community to acknowledge the need for investment in climate-resilient infrastructure across the tropics for SDGs to be reached and the economies of these nations not to be suffering preventable consequences of environmental extremes. Additionally, specific attention should be paid to implementing effective resilience strategies at seaports which are at the heart of economic activity in coastal regions and continue to be the primary choice of participating in international trade across the globe.

In terms of the existing recommendations, ports throughout the tropics region could adopt a range of solutions such as upgrading and adapting existing infrastructure to defend it from sea-level rise and ensuring its climate-responsive. Furthermore, ports could upgrade specific equipment and facilities to ones designed with environmental hazards in mind and adopt innovative technological solutions for effective climate change management.[24]

These could include, for instance, improving drainage systems to tackle increased rainfall, investing in more efficient refrigeration or reducing overall energy consumption to address increased refrigeration costs during heat waves. Additionally, it can also include reorganising goods storage systems to specific designated safe areas and increasing sea wall height to protect against sea flooding.[25] The World Bank places particular importance on the construction of sea walls and emphasises on the substantial costs of these constructions, which are unlikely to be realistically coverable by the nations with high vulnerability.[26]

We call for further research on innovative, cost-effective strategies for climate change mitigation and adaptation that will protect vulnerable ports of the tropics against environmental hazards. Likewise, we call for research on shared and cooperative strategy across the region that considers the shared realities and ecologies of the mainly developing region and the various socio-economic circumstances.

Furthermore, we call on non-governmental organisations and intergovernmental organisations to continue raising awareness, starting a dialogue, as well as encourage experts to carry out interdisciplinary as well as tailored technical research on potential solutions to the environmental hazards. Additionally, we strongly encourage taking further action, for instance, fundraising to aid in covering costs of implementing climate-resilient systems in developing countries were budgets possibilities often are disproportionate to the necessary environmental safety expenses.

Finally, we request local port authorities and port city authorities in the tropics to invest and encourage local research and to engage in international partnerships which can lead to mutual benefits, such as participating in sharing technologies and implementation aid and in representing the unique needs of tropical seaports at the national and international level. Taking such initiative could allow for the development of a holistic approach that would recognise the specific challenges faced by the tropics which extend beyond the environmental threats onto the areas of food security, biodiversity and pollution control. 

Conclusion

The tropics are particularly vulnerable to environmental threats and a mostly developing region facing a range of socio-economic challenges. The region is also a key player for achieving SDGs and climate resilience. Bearing these realities in mind, seaports in the tropics are at the forefront of climate change in terms of the environmental risks they face. Additionally, tropical seaports are at the heart of the economy in the tropics. They need to address the environmental threats to ensure they can remain a stable part of international trade. 

Moreover, tropical seaports are specifically vulnerable to environmental challenges such as rising sea level, increased rainfall, soaring heat waves, and increasing intensity of tropical storms, among others. These pose a serious and continuous threat to seaport infrastructure and operations. In addition, out of the port cities identified as most vulnerable to sea-level rise and storm surge in terms of affected assets and populations, most are within tropical nations.

Therefore, this post outlines some existing recommendations to tackle these through mitigation and adaptation strategies. These include upgrading existing infrastructure; wherein sea wall constructions have been identified as specifically necessary. Moreover, we call for the continued awareness-raising and increased encouragement of research, cooperation, fundraising and appropriate representation. Overall, this post outlined the vulnerability of tropical seaports to environmental challenges and the need to take appropriate actions to address these challenges.

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[1] UN, ‘UN marks Day of the Tropics with focus on region’s vulnerability’ (United Nations: Blog) https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/blog/2017/06/un-marks-day-of-the-tropics-with-focus-on-regions-vulnerability/.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] UN, ‘International Day of the Tropics’ (United Nations) https://www.un.org/en/observances/tropics-day.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Nevin A., ‘International Day of the Tropics’ (CO2 Balance) https://www.co2balance.com/international-day-of-the-tropics/.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Asariotis, R. and others. ‘Port Industry Survey on Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation’ [2018] UNCTAD 18; See also: IPCC’ Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis’ [2013] Cambridge University Press, Cambridge https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg1.

[11] Asariotis, R. and others. ‘Port Industry Survey on Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation.’ [2018] UNCTAD 18.; See also: Met Office. ‘Climate risk: An update on the science’ [2014] Meteorological Office, Devon, UK.; See also: EEA. ‘Projected changes in heavy precipitation (in %) in winter and summer from 1971-2000 to 2071–2100 for the RCP8.5 scenario based on the ensemble mean of different regional climate models (RCMs) nested in different general circulation models (GCMs)’ [2015] EEA http://www.eea.europa.eu/data-and-maps/figures/projected-changes-in-20-year-2.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Asariotis, R. and others. ‘Port Industry Survey on Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation’ [2018] UNCTAD 18.; See also: Takagi H. and others. ‘Assessment of future stability of breakwaters under climate change’ [2011] Coastal Engineering Journal 53.; See also: Becker, A and others. ‘A method to estimate climate-critical construction materials applied to seaport protection’ [2016] Global Environmental Change, 40.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Asariotis, R. and others. ‘Port Industry Survey on Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation’ [2018] UNCTAD 18.

[16] Nicholls, R. and others. ‘Ranking Port Cities with High Exposure and Vulnerability to Climate Extremes: Exposure Estimates’ [2008] OECD Environment Working Papers.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Sale P. and others. ‘Transforming management of tropical coastal seas to cope with challenges of the 21st century’ [2014] Marine Pollution Bulletin 85(1).

[25] Scott H. and others. ‘Climate change adaptation guidelines for ports’ [2013] National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility.

[26] The World Bank’ Climate and Disaster Resilience’ [2016] The World Bank https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2016/07/28/climate-and-disaster-resilience-must-play-greater-role-in-pacific-planning-and-development.

Bibliography

 European Environment Agency, ‘Projected changes in heavy precipitation in winter and summer’ <http://www.eea.europa.eu/data-and-maps/figures/projected-changes-in-20-year-2>

Asariotis, R. and others. ‘Port Industry Survey on Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation’ [2018] UNCTAD 18

Asariotis, R. and others. ‘Port Industry Survey on Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation’ [2018] UNCTAD 18.; See also: Takagi H. and others. ‘Assessment of future stability of breakwaters under climate change’ [2011] Coastal Engineering Journal 53.; See also: Becker, A and others. ‘A method to estimate climate-critical construction materials applied to seaport protection’ [2016] Global Environmental Change, 40.

Asariotis, R. and others. ‘Port Industry Survey on Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation’ [2018] UNCTAD 18.

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The World Bank ‘Climate and Disaster Resilience’ [2016] The World Bank <https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2016/07/28/climate-and-disaster-resilience-must-play-greater-role-in-pacific-planning-and-development>

UN, ‘International Day of the Tropics’ (United Nations) <https://www.un.org/en/observances/tropics-day>

UN, ‘UN marks Day of the Tropics with focus on region’s vulnerability’ (United Nations: Blog) <https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/blog/2017/06/un-marks-day-of-the-tropics-with-focus-on-regions-vulnerability/>

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