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Building resilient coastal communities in the Asia Pacific

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Author: Edo Andriesse, SNU and Kristian Saguin, UP Diliman The Asia Pacific has seen an impressive reduction in absolute poverty within the span of a few decades, but marginal groups still remain vulnerable to the multi-scalar shocks of economic fluctuations, natural hazards and health crises. The small-scale fisheries sector, composed of fisherfolk and other households
The post Building resilient coastal communities in the Asia Pacific first appeared on East Asia Forum.

Author: Edo Andriesse, SNU and Kristian Saguin, UP Diliman

The Asia Pacific has seen an impressive reduction in absolute poverty within the span of a few decades, but marginal groups still remain vulnerable to the multi-scalar shocks of economic fluctuations, natural hazards and health crises. The small-scale fisheries sector, composed of fisherfolk and other households dependent on coastal resources, has historically experienced greater precarity due to socio-environmental pressures and political-economic marginalisation, now being further exacerbated by the pandemic.

Fishermen sail past a group of cruise ships anchored in Manila Bay as its crew members undergo quarantine amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Manila, Philippines, 8 May 2020 (Photo: Reuters/Eloisa Lopez).

Faced with looming threats of stronger tropical cyclones, sea-level rise and potentially devastating tsunamis, fishing-based households are also forced to confront the livelihood challenges of overfishing and coastal environmental degradation. Fisherfolk occupy relatively marginal political and economic positions, even in archipelagic countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines.

They have been subject to various modes of displacement to make way for diverse coastal activities such as intensive aquaculture, tourism and urban development. Despite the production crises in marine fisheries and the pressures of coastal transformations, employment in the sector continues to increase, averaging a global total of 30 million in recent years.

Coastal communities in the Asia Pacific face multiple challenges: illegal fishing by large-scale commercial operations, limited access to fresh water, weather extremes, resource-use conflicts between various coastal activities and a lack of livelihood support. These have been partly addressed by national governments and non-governmental agencies through bottom-up and grassroots initiatives, such as establishing fisherfolk associations and strengthening local adaptive capacity.

It is hard to translate national planning into meaningful improvements on the ground. Achieving sustained success is difficult given the short-term nature of most interventions, with many sites reverting to square one at the end of a project cycle. The COVID-19 pandemic is a powerful reminder that progress can be undone rapidly, as the experiences of many coastal communities this year have shown.

Rather than fixed national planning, more flexibility in the design and application of development interventions is needed. In a world where shocks — commodity boom and busts, extreme weather events and pandemics — have profound impacts on marginalised sectors, it is necessary to plan for change through multiple alternatives and options.

Coastal communities have benefited from innovations in collective action arrangements such as organising shrimp farmers into clusters in Vietnam. These entail a higher commitment than informal associations without being as rigid as formal associations. New forms of local governance such as citizens assemblies are also promising.

Planning should be oriented toward the less visible, slow-onset effects of climate change that simmer in the background but occasionally erupt as dramatic crises, seen in examples such as the climate refugees in Bangladesh and sea-level rise in the Pacific Ocean.

Five key proposals would improve coastal resilience and sustainability in the region.

First, top-down national policies need to be aligned with bottom-up initiatives, enabling flexibility in the event of hazards and global economic shocks.

Second, improving spatial planning will enable farmers, fishers and others who are resource-dependent to discuss their specific and shared challenges. Land-based issues such as land access, tenure, use/cover change and dispossession shape coastal communities as seriously as marine transformations. Water shortages, such as those on Pacific Islands, are recurring problems in coastal communities that have so far been underreported.

Third, the question of food security among fishing-based households needs both policy and research emphasis. The pandemic’s disruption of domestic and global value chains of fish, seafood and marine products significantly intensified hunger and livelihood loss among fishing communities, a process that will likely continue even after lockdowns have eased. This requires a long-term response that reforms the fundamental structure of the global agri-food system.

Fourth, more support is needed for emergent and expanding livelihood portfolios suited to the particularities and ecologies of coastal communities. The example of fisherfolk returning to seaweed farming in Bali with the shutting down of tourism shows the importance of diverse, sustainable livelihood options during periods of crisis.

Finally, resilience cannot be divorced from the broader political and economic conditions of coastal communities. Policies need to recognise and address the complex structural and cross-scalar drivers of coastal livelihood change.

Uncertainty about the future of coastal communities heightens precarity, particularly for a sector already facing high levels of poverty and marginally positioned in society. The pandemic has disrupted lives and threatened livelihoods but has also offered openings for introducing more adaptive and radical ways of reimagining resilience in the coastal Asia Pacific.

Edo Andriesse is Associate Professor at the Department of Geography, College of Social Sciences, Seoul National University.

Kristian Saguin is Associate Professor at the Department of Geography, College of Social Sciences and Philosophy, University of the Philippines, Diliman.

The post Building resilient coastal communities in the Asia Pacific first appeared on East Asia Forum.

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