Hundreds of millions of people worldwide depend on coral reefs for fishing, tourism, coastal protection and other ecosystem services. There is ample research demonstrating reefs' vulnerability to climate change, yet few studies have examined the socio-economic consequences of deteriorating coral reefs. Tangible actions to reduce vulnerabilityIn the most detailed and extensive study to date, Josh Cinner of the ARC Centre of Excellence in Coral Reef Studies (CoECRS) led an international team of researchers including Stockholm Resilience Centre researchers Tim Daw and Örjan Bodin. Together they studied 1500 households in 29 coastal communities fringing the East African coast and islands of the Western Indian Ocean.
Based on a three-step method, the researchers assessed the likelihood of the communities experiencing an extreme climate-related event such as coral bleaching. Next step was to see how sensitive they are, in terms of whether they have alternative sources of food or employment. Finally their capacity to adapt to changes inflicted by a shifting climate was investigated.
"This vulnerability analysis allows us to identify how exposure, sensitivity and adaptive capacity together shape vulnerability to climate change, and to provide policy makers with tangible actions to reduce it," says Tim Daw.
Different approaches to different communities
The authors show how these three components of vulnerability can vary between communities even within a single country. For example the East and West coasts of Madagascar had completely different exposure to coral bleaching (see figure below).
Meanwhile some countries in Kenya had higher capacity to adapt than some in Seychelles, but other Kenyan communities were the most vulnerable in the region.
"This demonstrates the need for specific approaches to reduce communities' sensitivity to big changes and enhance their ability to cope," says co-author Örjan Bodin.
Boost capacity (and curb corruption while you're at it)
The list of steps to reduce local vulnerability includes improved weather forecasts, evacuations from highly vulnerable areas, and diversification of livelihoods. For example new gears and target species may help reduce sensitivity to coral reef bleaching.
"But our previous research has shown that the poorest fishers may be too deeply trapped by poverty to risk new livelihood activities without some type of social safety net," Tim Daw says. He has previously looked at ways to develop a more specific analysis of ecosystem services benefits and how they can contribute to poverty alleviation.
In terms of governance, local actions include boosting community groups responsible for managing coastal resources and improvements in coastal infrastructure.
"In the Western Indian Ocean region, there is an exciting development whereby community-based organisations are increasingly empowered with the responsibility of managing coastal resources such as reef-based fisheries. Further capacity-building investments in these organisations could be critical to help manage environmental change and reduce vulnerability," says Tim Daw.
"On a larger scale, addressing issues like corruption, transparency and political stability is also crucial for future adaptive capacity," Daw concludes.