Despite their potential for economic transformation, marine resources are an underexploited area in East Africa and the Horn. Some estimates put $22 billion as the value of the Blue Economy in the Western Indian Ocean states.
Between November 26 and 28, Kenya will be hosting a high- level conference that will bring the who’s who of Blue Economy experts to Nairobi.
Hosts Kenya are upbeat and striking the appropriate posture, with government officials saying that properly targeted investment in this hitherto neglected area could boost national GDP by as much as six per cent.
One expected outcome of the conference is that Kenya and its regional neighbours will be more awake to the opportunities that not just their oceans but their water bodies represent in general.
That is because the conference will not only highlight the opportunities for improved livelihoods from harnessing the marine economy, but also well the existential threats.
Yet given the level of domestic and transnational conflict over these resources, it can be argued that everybody is actually aware of their value.
For instance, fish remains a major source of conflict in Lake Victoria and the Indian Ocean where marine boundaries remain vague.
Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania arbitrarily arrest each other’s fishermen for encroaching on territorial waters despite all being members of the East African Community.
Territorial disputes such as that between Kenya and Uganda over Migingo Island in Lake Victoria have been simmering for decades without resolution.
It is unlikely that the glaring gaps in jurisdiction and rules of play that have often pitted neighbour against neighbour and brother against brother will be up for candid discussion. Yet without such a conversation, intermittent conflict will stand between the present and promise of the Blue Economy.
The frequent spats between Kenya, Somalia and Tanzania as well as Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo amply demonstrate the paralysing effect the absence of agreed rules can have on potential.
The status quo is unsustainable for a simple reason. States are caught between polices that bar, rather than promote use, while in some instances, serious lapses in enforcement have opened this sensitive resource to mindless exploitation.
The net effect is that credible investors remain apprehensive about deploying the financial and technological capital needed to unlock this potential.
Exploiting the Blue Economy should begin by first resolving the state-to-state conflicts over these resources that are likely to become more pronounced given the emerging profile of the Indian Ocean as a new frontier for oil and gas exploration.
Next should be agreement on a common approach to dealing with threats such as pollution and overexploitation.
In many places, the most basic tools for conservation and enforcement such as a coast guard and marine police are either not in place or are under-resourced.
Capacity building and harnessing collaboration between the public and private sectors can go a long way in addressing some of these transient challenges.