The African coastline has abundant and diverse natural resources and highly productive ecosystems that provide protection and stabilization of the physical coastline, regulation of global atmospheric gases, and nutrient cycling. The natural beauty of the coastline and its abundant resources have attracted high numbers of tourists and migrants in recent years. Local communities are heavily dependent on coastal resources such as mangrove trees for construction and medicinal and food products, and for subsistence or small-scale trade. Inland communities are now also able to access these resources and demand, as well as the price, for some food species is sufficient to support national fishing industries. These fisheries and other industries (notably oil and gas, and tourism) make substantial contributions to the national economies of coastal African countries. The coastal and marine resources therefore have great ecological, social and economic importance, both locally and for the global community.
Abundance of natural resources and economic opportunities have led to very high rates of migration and urbanization, tourism, and development in Africa over the past 30 years. Housing and urban infrastructure, industrial sites, ports, agricultural activities and hotel and leisure facilities have all also developed and have brought with them activities such as mining of sand, limestone and coral to provide building materials. These pressures have combined to destabilize Africa's coastal zone, increase erosion, smother habitats, deplete resources, pollute ecosystems, and reduce biodiversity. The consequence of these impacts has been a drop in economic opportunities and increasing poverty amongst coastal communities dependent on natural resources. Pollution levels are also threatening human health, directly through exposure to contaminants in coastal waters at popular resorts, and indirectly through accumulation of toxins in seafood. This pattern of overextraction and overloading with wastes is likely to continue, if not intensify, in future.
The challenge for Africa is to use its resources wisely, so that economic development can be achieved without destroying the resource base on which it is founded. ICZM is a proposed tool for doing this, and one that has been adopted, in principle, by many coastal African nations. However, implementation in many countries has been hampered by lack of human and financial resources, lack of scientific data and monitoring programmes, and by institutional fragmentation and lack of cooperative mechanisms and integrated development models. Similarly, international treaties, such as the United Nations Law of the Sea, and MARPOL, have been signed but are ineffective without the necessary commitment to ensure implementation and enforcement of penalties for non-compliance.