Washington: The human and economic cost of air pollution and degraded seas and coastlines is immense, estimated to be more than 3% of GDP in some countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), according to a new World Bank Report.
The report, Blue Skies, Blue Seas: Air Pollution, Marine Plastics and Coastal Erosion in the Middle East and North Africa, focuses on the degradation of "blue" natural assets in the MENA region (clean air, health seas and stable coastlines) and offers policy recommendations to reverse the threat to this natural capital.
"Polluted skies and seas are costly to the health, social and economic wellbeing of millions of people in the Middle East and North Africa region," said Ferid Belhaj, World Bank Vice President for the Middle East and North Africa, in a press release on Monday.
"As countries recover from COVID-19, there is an opportunity to change course and choose a greener, bluer and more sustainable growth path that has fewer emissions and less environmental degradation," he added.
Air pollution levels in MENA’s largest cities are among the highest in the world, with the average urban resident breathing in air that exceeds by more than 10 times the level of pollutants considered safe by the WHO, the report said. Air pollution causes about 270,000 deaths a year (more than deaths from traffic accidents, diabetes, malaria TB, HIV/AIDS and acute hepatitis combined) and the average MENA resident is ill at least 60 days in his/her lifetime due to exposure to elevated air pollution levels. The economic costs of air pollution are immense – around $141 billion per year, or 2% of regional GDP.
MENA’s seas have also become more polluted, and the average resident contributes more than 6 kg of plastic waste into the region’s seas each year, the highest level globally. According to the report, the annual average cost of marine plastic pollution is around 0.8% of GDP. A major cause for this plastic waste is poor solid waste management, and an over-use of plastics, partly due to a lack of plastic alternatives. The Maghreb and Mashreq regions mismanage around 60% of their waste and open dumping is prevalent, including in higher-income Gulf countries. Total waste generation is expected to almost double by 2050 to 255 million tons (from 129 million tons in 2016), further exacerbating the issue.
Added to dirty seas, is a growing risk posed by coastal erosion, with MENA’s shorelines eroding at the second fastest rate globally. In the Maghreb alone, coasts have eroded at an average of around 15 centimetres per year, more than double the global average of 7 centimetres per year, the report said. The disappearance of MENA’s beaches threatens livelihoods, particularly among the poor. Shrinking coastlines impair fisheries, reduce coastal tourism and compromise related activities. The estimated direct cost of coastal erosion in terms of destroyed land and buildings (excluding indirect costs such as reduced tourism revenues) range from 0.2% of GDP in Algeria to 2.8% in Tunisia.
The deterioration of MENA’s blue assets is due to a range of deficiencies but common to all three challenges is a lack of reliable knowledge of both the sources and sectors responsible. Hence, it is key to improve source attribution studies for air and marine plastic pollution as well as more detailed studies of coastal dynamics for coastal erosion. Similarly, awareness programs for all three issues are vital to inform the public and boost demand for change.
More specifically for air pollution, the report suggests pricing the cost of air pollution and reforming fossil fuel subsidies and creating markets for emissions, along with offering cleaner transportation options. Effective enforcement of stricter emission standards for industry is crucial, as are improvements in solid waste management to reduce the open burning of agricultural and municipal waste.
To address marine plastic pollution, report recommendations include improving solid waste management, creating reliable market structures for recycling markets and increased collaboration with the private sector for plastic alternatives, while also reducing fossil fuel subsidies which artificially reduce the price of plastics versus alternatives
To tackle coastal erosion, governments must better understand the drivers of erosion and determine hotspots while also embarking on integrated coastal zone management schemes and adopting nature-based solutions that protect coastlines, including dune vegetation or artificial reefs. Moreover, practices that exacerbate coastal erosion should be controlled, including effective bans for illegal sand mining, and retrofitting dams that obstruct the flow of sediment from rivers to the coasts, the report said.
"Healthy blue assets are at the epicenter of trade, tourism and industry in MENA and while more needs to be done, many countries do now recognize the urgent need to protect this vital natural capital through reforms, regulations, partnerships and investments," said Ayat Soliman, World Bank Director of Sustainable Development for the Middle East and North Africa.