The main concerns are the loss of biodiversity, habitat degradation and the modification of mangrove and coral reef ecosystems. Human-related pressures come from overfishing and fishing-related damage, from urbanization and tourism development, from agriculture and industry, and from damming for hydropower. Other important concerns are the reported dumping of hazardous wastes on Somalia’s shores and coastal waters (UNEP 2005a) and climate change, contributing to coral bleaching and sea-level rise, which in turn leads to coastal erosion and inundation of coastal lowlands. Another issue is the sporadic infestation of coral reefs by the invasive crown- of-thorns starfish (COTS). The shores facing the Indian Ocean were impacted by the catastrophic tsunami of 26 December 2004, and in Somalia, some 300 people are reported to have died (UNEP 2005a).


The sub-region’s long coastline stretches from the Red Sea, which flanks Eritrea, through the Gulf of Aden, off Djibouti, to the Indian Ocean, off Somalia and Kenya. Most of the coastal zone is arid and, outside the few coastal cities, sparsely populated, except in Kenya where the coast has a monsoonal climate and supports a large and growing population.

Most countries have important marine fisheries resources, as well as the inshore and reef fisheries which are traditionally exploited by artisanal fishers. There are prolific fisheries associated with the upwelling of the Somali Current off the north-eastern coast of Somalia, and seasonally rich resources off Djibouti and Eritrea.

Coral reefs occur extensively, except where there is upwelling or sediment is discharged. Surveys of reefs in the late 1990s, here, and on the shores of the Gulf of Aden, reported reef health to be generally good, and the diversity of coral and reef-associated fauna to be globally significant, with a high level of endemism and species diversity (PERSGA/GEF 2003, Kotb and others 2004). Reefs occur as an interrupted barrier on Somalia’s southern coast (UNEP-WCMC 2000), and in Kenya they fringe a cliff-bounded, intertidal platform extending over some 150 km of the Mombasa shore. Kenya’s coral reefs suffered severe mortality in the 1998 bleaching event, but recovery of coral cover is now at 50- 100 per cent levels (Obura and others 2004).

Mangroves colonize some sheltered inlets on the Red Sea and in southern Somalia, and in Kenya exist as extensive, lush forests, in the Lamu district, and as linings to tidal creeks, further south; they have a total estimated area of 610 km² (Taylor and others 2003). The coral reefs, sea-grass beds and mangroves of the Somali Current LME (NOAA 2000) form a productive and diverse ecosystem of great ecological and socioeconomic importance; the mangroves also providing sanctuary to a wide variety of terrestrial fauna (UNEP/GPA and WIOMSA 2004). For the Red Sea, several MPAs have been declared or proposed – notably the Dahlak Archipelago marine park (2 000 km²) in Eritrea – but these are mostly lacking effective management plans and enforcement (Kotb and others 2004). In Kenya, MPAs, such as the Watamu and Kisite marine national parks, are well established and generally well managed (IUCN and others 2004, Obura and others 2004). No effective protection exists on the Somali coast.

Oil and gas exploration is continuing along the Eritrean and Kenyan coasts (EIA 2005). The Pleistocene reef limestones provide raw materials for an established cement industry near Mombasa, and in Somalia similar limestones are quarried for aggregate and building stone. In a new coastal development venture in Kenya, mineral sands have been identified as a source of titanium ore.

The coastal zone has a rich archaeological and cultural heritage which includes the UNESCO World Heritage site of Lamu Old Town in Kenya, the oldest and best-preserved Swahili settlement in East Africa (UNESCO 2005). Other significant heritage sites in Kenya include Mombasa’s Old Town and Fort Jesus. The Gedi ruins near Malindi, gazetted as a monument in 1927 and now a National Museum, mark an Islamic civilization city (National Museums of Kenya undated).


Inshore and reef-related fisheries have been a mainstay of the coastal populations and continue to be an essential resource for their livelihoods (FAO 2004b, FAO 2002a, PERSGA/GEF 2003, UNEP 1998). The Red Sea coasts of Eritrea and Djibouti support extensive reef-based artisanal fisheries; there are also productive offshore fisheries due to the seasonal upwelling in the Gulf of Aden.

Fisheries are dominated by foreign fleets, with production far outstripping that of artisanal fishers (FAO 2002a). Most commercial operations in the prolific fisheries of the Somali Current upwelling are carried out by foreign vessels, many of them illegally (UNEP 2002a). In Kenya, most fishing activity takes place along the reef, with mainly reef- and sea-grass-associated fish species being exploited; a few freezer trawlers fish for shrimp in the shallow waters of Ungwana Bay (FAO 2001a). Little is known of the potential of the offshore fisheries resource in southern Somali and Kenyan waters.

Figure 7: Reported marine fish catches in Eastern African countries since 1980 While artisanal and inshore fisheries are generally overharvested, some countries have not yet developed the capacity to fully exploit, or enforce regulation of, their offshore fisheries. But this is changing. Eritrea now places a high priority on the development of commercial fisheries (Kotb and others 2004), aiming to increase production three- to four-fold, up to between 50 000 and 60 000 t per year. Some 80 to 85 per cent of this production is expected to be generated by the foreign industrial fleet, especially trawlers, but the contribution from artisanal fisheries may also be increased (FAO 2002a). In Djibouti, pelagic and small tuna species are considered to be significantly underexploited (FAO 2004b). Djibouti is aiming for an annual maximum sustainable yield (MSY) of 5 000 t, compared with a 2001 level of 350 t.

In Kenya, coastal tourism is a major foreign exchange earner, with its beach and coral reef resources, coastal heritage sites and forest reserves being major assets. Coastal tourism is starting to develop in Djibouti and has shown a moderate growth in Eritrea (Kotb and others 2004). In Somalia, ecotourism offers promise, but promise that cannot be realized until stability and effective governance is re-established (Coffen-Smout 1998).


Adopting transboundary approaches to manage marine and coastal resources is essential if their sustainability is to be ensured. The main transboundary cooperation is within the framework of the Nairobi (involving Kenya and Somalia) and Jeddah (involving Djibouti and Somalia) conventions. For the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, PERSGA implements the Jeddah Convention. Priority actions have been identified in the Regional Action Plan coordinated by PERSGA in 2003. The Nairobi Convention is administered by UNEP. Land-based activities impacting the coastal and marine resources in Kenya are addressed through UNEP as part of the GEF-funded WIO-LaB project (WIO-LaB 2005).

Box 1: The socioeconomic context of small-scale marine fisheries in Kenya

Small-scale marine fisheries in Kenya are multispecies and use multigear. These are economically valuable, generating in excess of US$3.2 million per year for local fishers, which would represent significantly more for the wider community if the income for traders was known. The small-scale fishers land at least 95 per cent of the marine catch. It is estimated that more than 60 000 coastal people depend on these fisheries. In some coastal communities, over 70 per cent of households depend on fisheries, but an estimated average for the coast as a whole is 45 per cent of households.

Although very few coastal households depend solely on fishing for their livelihood, many depend only on fisheries resources for income. Fishing and trading fish is one activity amongst a range of livelihood activities (both subsistence and income earning) carried out by coastal households. Fish is an important source of animal protein for coastal communities, 70 per cent of fisheries-dependent households and 50 per cent of non-fisheries-dependent households eat fish more than once a week. Fisheriesdependent households in Kenya are poor: this is the perception of fishers and is confirmed by food security and quality of life indicators. The high levels of dependence reflect the paucity of alternative income earning options. This situation makes coastal communities highly vulnerable to mismanagement or loss of fisheries resources. The lack of effective management, by both formal and informal institutions, and the high dependence on these resources have been identified by fisheries stakeholders as important contributors to poverty in coastal communities. The prevalence of destructive fishing gear, primarily small meshed nets, coupled with growing numbers of fishers, are key management issues to tackle.

Source: UN 2005

The loss of biodiversity, degradation of habitats, and the modification of mangrove and coral reef ecosystems have widespread consequences. Direct human pressures on the coastal and marine environment come from increasing coastal populations, pollution and the growth of tourism. Indirect pressures come from the consequences of climate change – rising sea level and high sea temperatures leading to coral bleaching. Urbanization and industrial growth, and the development of mass tourism are contributing to the loss of habitats and the degradation of living resources. Tourism development tends to be poorly controlled and is contributing to reef deterioration, pollution, inappropriate construction of sea defences, and the loss of the natural tourism value (UNEP/GPA and WIOMSA 2004). Population increase and migration to coastal areas are putting resources under increasing pressure, and people are resorting to practices to cater for their needs which are increasingly environmentally damaging (Francis and Torell 2004). Other human-related pressures come from overfishing and fishing-related damage, from urbanization and tourism development, pollution from agriculture and industry and, in Kenya, the damming of rivers for hydropower. Another key issue is the reported use of Somali shores and coastal waters as dumping grounds for hazardous wastes (UNEP 2005a).

The principal threats to the continuing health of the coral reefs come from recurrences of bleaching events similar to that of 1998, overfishing and the use of destructive gear (Obura and others 2004). Another issue is the sporadic infestation of coral reefs by the invasive COTS. In the absence of efficient regulatory mechanisms and because it is an open access resource, marine fishery often provides a refuge of last resort for impoverished coastal dwellers (Ochiewo 2004) as shown in Box 1. In Kenya, there are indications that the degradation of reef fisheries and ecosystems has been checked or at least slowed down along those stretches of coast where MPAs have been established (FAO 2001a).

There is a lack of public and government awareness of the issues, poor enforcement of the legal framework relating to reef conservation and, in the case of Somalia, a lack of effective governance (Kotb and others 2004, Obura and others 2004). Mangroves are also under threat. Increasing land-based pollution, decreasing freshwater discharge from rivers and overharvesting are having adverse effects on the health of mangroves – the nursery areas for many marine fish species. In Kenya, there has been overharvesting to meet an increased demand from tourism developments for construction timber, as well as mangrove clearance from the expansion of agriculture and solar salt pans (UNEP/GPA and WIOMSA 2004). Seepage of saline groundwater from the salt pans has killed neighbouring mangroves (Taylor and others 2003).

Damming on the Tana River in Kenya for hydropower (Box 2) has led to a reduction in the frequency and extent of seasonal flooding events, with negative impacts on agriculture and fisheries in the lower floodplains and coastal wetlands (IUCN 2003b, Crossland and others 2005) and on the prawn fishery in the adjoining Ungwana Bay. The introduction of short-term, high flow releases to simulate the natural flooding regime is under consideration in the design of the Mutonga-Grand Falls dam planned for the Upper Tana (Acreman 2005).

Box 2: Management of the downstream and coastal impacts of damming in the Tana basin, Kenya
Mouth of the Tana River on Kenya’s Indian Ocean coast.
Source: Altitude/Still Pictures

Tana and Athi Rivers Development Authority (TARDA) plans to construct a high dam at Mutonga-Grand Falls, downstream of the existing Seven Forks dams. The dam will provide hydroelectricity as well as water storage for irrigation projects and urban/rural water supply schemes. The dam has the potential to exacerbate the changes in downstream flow caused by the present dams. Although the base flow is expected to increase by continuous release, the peak flood flows are expected to reduce considerably both in frequency and severity. Increased base flow is important for sustaining livelihood systems in the lower Tana basin during the dry seasons.

Reduced peak flows due to the existing damming have already impacted on the livelihoods of the riverine communities in the lower Tana basin, downstream of Garissa, who depend on seasonal flooding to cultivate the fertile floodplain soils, and on the maintenance of the rich biodiversity of the extensive delta, with its mangrove forests and productive fisheries. The coastal prawn fishery of Ungwana Bay has become stressed through reduced nutrient discharge from the delta distributaries and there is concern that the intrusion of saline waters into the delta will be enhanced. The delta front is formed of prominent sand dunes, the sand redistributed from the discharged river bedload by tidal and wave currents and wind. The expected reductions in peak flows are likely to further reduce the amount of sand discharged, aggravating the erosion already affecting the delta shore.

The need for integration of downstream values into hydropower planning in the Tana system has been highlighted in a case study (IUCN 2003b), based on research in the early 1990s into the economic valuation of the costs and benefits in the lower Tana resulting from dam construction (Emerton in Nippon Koei 1994). The resource value of the Tana’s floodplain and its floods has been recognized by the dam’s designers and developers (Acreman 2005). The dam is expected to store enough water to produce short-term, high releases to simulate natural floods, as well as meeting the target for power generation. The possibility of releasing silt together with the floodwater is also being examined. Modelling studies have been undertaken in order to determine the optimum release required to maintain or improve the integrity of the riverine and coastal-marine ecosystems.

The determination of the optimum environmental flow is a challenging scientific assignment, requiring input from ecologists and socioeconomists as well as hydrologists. Integrated management of the Tana River system, taking into consideration the downstream and coastal impacts of damming, is a priority objective, so that development activities upstream are initiated with full awareness of the potential consequences for its floodplain and delta, and its adjoining coastal waters in Ungwana Bay.

Sources: Acreman 2005, Emerton in Nippon Koei 1994, IUCN 2003b

Physical shoreline change including coastal erosion is another common issue. It is caused by natural phenomena, such as the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004, as well as human pressures (Kairu and Nyandwi 2000, UNEP/GPA 2004, Crossland and others 2005, UNEP 2005a). Shoreline change impacts on tourism infrastructure and on the attractiveness of the coastal environment upon which coastal tourism largely depends. The loss of beach sands and the erosion of low-lying beach plains, much favoured as sites for hotel development, are particular concerns in Kenya. In many instances, beach erosion has been exacerbated by the installation of inappropriate, hard-engineered sea defences. Beach sand erosion also endangers the nesting sites of the sea turtle, an endangered species. It is anticipated that coastal erosion will increase with sea-level rise associated with global climate change (IPCC 2001). Shoreline accretion can also be a problem. During the last 40 years or so, changes in the regime of sediment discharge from the Sabaki River have led to major siltation and beach progradation in the vicinity of the resort town of Malindi (Kairu and Nyandwi 2000, UNEP/GPA 2004).