Climate Change’s toll on the Western Indian Ocean


An important aspect of the enfolding climate crisis is its disproportionate impact on different peoples and geographical locations. This is exacerbated by the unequal attention given to the climate crises emerging across the world. For instance, the devastating wildfires of Australia, Canada, and most recently, Hawaii have garnered a great deal of media coverage (OECD Publishing).1OECD. Taming Wildfires in the Context of Climate Change. OECD Publishing (2023) However, little attention has been given to the nations on the Western fringes of the Indian Ocean, which are also suffering from the harsh effects of climate change. The beautiful coral reefs that surround the coasts in this area are now rapidly dwindling due to climate change.

This piece firstly showcases the directly proportional relationship between climate change and coral reef deterioration by comparing the effects of the former to that of the El Niño’s. This piece then attempts to shine a light on how climate change has effectively confined some of the world’s poorest coastal communities to a vicious cycle of poverty by destroying the coral reefs located in their region.  The destruction of coral reefs has a myriad of consequences but the most damaging ones for these communities revolve around fishing and tourism. Finally, this piece dissects existing conservation efforts in this area and proposes potential improvements such as the creation of protected zones and alteration of shipping routes so that ships stay away from the reefs.

Climate Change and its Proven Link to Coral Reef Destruction

One of the key indicators of climate change is global warming, which is the overall increase in the world’s average temperature. Climate change has obviously impacted species and ecosystems upon land, but its effect upon the oceans, which cover 70% of the Earth’s surface (National Geographic),2National Geographic. All about the Ocean cannot be understated. Water’s nature as a better conductor of heat (University of Arizona)3University of Arizona Lecture 11. Temperature, Conduction, Convection and Radiation than air has made it the world’s figurative and literal hotspot as it now contains over 90% of the heat generated from human-induced global warming. For coral reefs, which are innately sensitive to water conditions, this increase in heat has been extremely detrimental, resulting in widespread bleaching and death. The El Niño weather phenomenon provides the perfect example of what occurs when ocean temperatures rise. El Niño is the warm phase of an oscillating weather pattern and is associated with a band of warm ocean water that develops in the Pacific Ocean (Mukhargee et al).4Mukherjee, Sayantika & Pal, Jayanti & Manna, Shaheen & Saha, Amrita & Das, Dipanwita. El-Niño Southern Oscillation and its effects (2022) El Niño events occur frequently but especially severe ones may have catastrophic effects. A particularly drastic rise in water temperature in 1998 due to an El Niño event caused an estimated 16% of the world’s reef systems to die (Marshall et al 13-25).5Marshall, Paul, Schuttenberg, Heidi (2006). A reef manager’s guide to coral bleaching. Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Australia (ISBN 1-876945-40-0). 13-25 Studies show that the frequency of such events is likely to increase due to climate change (Bin Wang et al 22512-22517).6Bin Wang, Xiao Luo, Young-Min Yang, Weiyi Sun, Mark A. Cane, Wenju Cai, Sang-Wook Yeh, and Jian Liu (2019). Historical change of El Niño properties sheds light on future changes of extreme El Niño. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2019 Nov 5;116(45):22512-22517. There now exists a direct correlation between rising temperatures and the deterioration of coral reefs.

The Impact of Reef Destruction upon Fishing

The Western Indian Ocean is home to one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the entire world and coral reefs have played a key role in maintaining them. Despite occupying less than 1% of the surface area of the world’s oceans, coral reefs provide food, shelter, nurseries and breeding grounds for at least 25% of all marine species (Spalding et al 225-230).7Spalding MD, Grenfell AM. New estimates of global and regional coral reef areas, (1997) Coral Reefs. 16 (4): 225-230 In return, the reef fish protect the coral reefs by consuming the invasive, harmful algae. This symbiotic relationship allows all species to thrive and provides a steady supply of tuna and snapper to the fishing communities on the East African coast (Samoilys et al).8Melita Samoilys, Kennedy Osuka, Nyawira Muthiga, and Alasdair Harris (2017). “Locally Managed Fisheries in the Western Indian Ocean: A Review of Past and Present Initiatives,” WIOMSA Book Series 17 The destruction of coral reefs, however, spells disaster for fish biodiversity. The example of Papua New Guinea provides a glimpse into what may soon occur in the Western Indian Ocean. Here, a sharp decline in coral cover caused a simultaneous decline in over 75% of all reef species. Out of these, 50% were reduced to less than half of their original populations (Jones et al 8251-8253).9Geoffrey P. Jones, Mark I, McCormick, Maya Srinivasan and Janelle V. Eagle (2004). Coral decline threatens fish biodiversity in marine reserves. 101(21) 8251-8253 The economic security of the coastal communities of the Western Indian Ocean is thus threatened by coral reef destruction as most fishermen lack the equipment to fish further out in the sea. Little benefit could be attained even if they were able to go out that far, however, as overfishing by unregistered foreign trawlers has caused fish stocks in the region to plummet.

The decrease in fish stocks will result in less revenue for fishermen and coastal communities. This then leads to food insecurity which may cause some to turn to criminal activities for the sake of economic security (Glaser et al).10Sarah M. Glaser, Colleen Devlin, Joshua E. Lambert, Ciera Villegas, and Natasia Poinsatte (2018). Fish Wars: The Causes and Consequences of Fisheries Conflict in Tanzania (Broomfield, CO: One Earth Future, 2018) The lack of prospects may even make people more susceptible to radicalization as extremist groups like Ahlu-Sanna Wa-Jama and Al-Shabaab take advantage of disgruntled communities and use their resentment to further their own causes (UNSC Report).11United Nations Security Council, Report of the Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator 2020 The destruction of coral reefs may thus be the first step of a detrimental domino effect for these Western Indian Ocean communities.

The Impact of Reef Destruction upon Tourism

Tourists from across the world come to the Western Indian Ocean to experience the area’s pristine beaches and diverse marine life both which are primarily sustained by healthy coral. Eco-tourism plays a key role in bolstering the economies of many countries in this region. The autonomous territory of Zanzibar within Tanzania, for example, attributes 27% of its GDP to spending from tourism and has recorded the creation of 72,000 jobs through the tourism industry (World Bank).12World Bank Tanzania Economic Update 2021. Transforming Tourism: Toward a Sustainable, Resilient, and Inclusive Sector However, when coral reefs begin to fall apart, the entire area’s biodiversity is threatened, and the ocean loses the very beauty that attracts tourists to these regions. In Zanzibar’s case, it experienced a $4 million loss in its diving industry due to a severe coral bleaching event in 2016. When tourism rates fall, fewer jobs are created for coastal populations which leaves less revenue for national governments and less economic security. The degradation of coral reefs thus has the potential to cause economies across East Africa to contract.

What can be done?

A two-pronged approach must be adopted for the protection of coral reefs. On the one hand, there must be coordinated efforts by organizations to protect existing coral reefs. Coastal Oceans Research and Development in the Indian Ocean (CORDIO) has already launched projects for the purpose of coral conservation. Whilst these projects have been successful in promoting awareness about coral reef conservation, they struggle to retain momentum after providing enough training and education. Maintaining commitment in the long run necessitates constant monitoring of the project’s progress in the context of the achievable goals it is set to meet in the near future. Here, the Southern Leyte Coral Reef Conservation Project (founded by Coral Cay Conservation) provides a successful example for the West Indian Ocean to follow. Whilst this project has had an education programme, it also has a practical arm in the form of survey teams which are routinely sent to collect vital data pertaining to the health of the reefs. It should be noted, however, that long-term projects like these require funding to operate. Such funding could potentially be achieved through foreign investment similar to what occurs in island nations like the Seychelles and Mauritius, both of which receive loans and grants from France. Whatever the approach, stakeholders in the tourism industry must be the ones to contribute to such projects (The Economist).13The Economist “Charting the Course for Ocean Sustainability in the Indian Ocean Rim,”

On a more bureaucratic level, the governments of East African nations could also slow down the process of coral degradation by adopting a more sustainable approach to commercial activities within the Western Indian Ocean. The reef fish that consume harmful algae, for example, have become victims of overfishing and for their contributions to coral health to continue, they must be protected. Accordingly, the more vulnerable coral reefs must be designated as protected zones. A valid concern associated with this measure is that it would deprive local communities of vital fishing sources. However, this can be addressed by introducing subsidies and benefits for local fishermen. Additionally, governments can also alter shipping routes so that tankers remain a safe distance from the coral reefs. This would protect the reefs in the case of accidental spillage, thus avoiding a disaster akin to the Wakashio spill in Mauritius (Degnarain 2020)14Nishan Degnarain. “Wakashio Four Months On: Mauritius Drenched In Oil, Health And Debt Issues,” Forbes, December 12, 2020 which caused widespread damage to that nation’s coral reefs.


The coral reefs that once dotted the East African coast are now experiencing a steady decline. This is primarily due to the rising ocean temperatures caused by climate change. The death of coral reefs will negatively affect not only the local communities that rely on the Western Indian Ocean for fishing but also the coast’s burgeoning eco-tourism industry. The protection of coral reefs must be prioritized. This can be done not only at an organizational level through conservation projects but also at a governmental level through the creation of protected zones and the alteration of shipping lines. It is evident that climate change has now become our new reality and for us to overcome it, positive action is needed at every level.

Saad Rai

Saad is a final-year law student at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). His primary research interests include commercial law and international law. Previously, he worked part-time at a consultancy by the name of Mak Chishty Consultancy where he prepared case briefs, took notes of court proceedings, proofread articles, and researched solutions for clients.