The marine environment of the Gulf of Aqaba is of global significance in having some of the northern-most reef systems in the Western Indo-Pacific. Its coral reef ecosystem has a high environmental and human value since it provides food and economic benefits to local communities in the form of tourism. However, marine litter, in particular plastic garbage, causes a wide spectrum of environmental, economic and health impacts and poses a growing threat to the fragile marine and coastal environment in Jordan. A first step to a plastic-free marine environment is to improve public and business awareness of, and behaviour changes around, marine litter.
Plastic garbage is threatening Jordan’s marine ecosystem. Source: Georg Respondek
The Red Sea is one of the most popular diving destinations in the world. The coral reef ecosystem of the Gulf of Aqaba, the northeastern arm of the Red Sea, attracts many tourists and divers since it has a high marine biodiversity, thus presenting a readily-available enterprise for Jordan’s tourism industry, which contributes to a significant part of the Jordan’s GDP.
According to a 2011 UNDP study for mainstreaming marine biodiversity conservation in the coastal management systems for the Aqaba Special Economic Zone (ASEZ), the economic benefits resulting from ecosystem services provided by Aqaba’s coral reefs were estimated between 24.6 million US$ to 49.2 million US$ annually. The world’s northernmost coral reef ecosystem is the most significant feature of the marine environment in Jordan. Home to around 127 species of hard coral and 300 kinds of soft coral, as well as 500 species of fish and thousands of plants and animals, the Jordanian reefs are an important reservoir for tropical reef species.
Some 55% of Aqaba’s fish population is coral reef fish. However, the majority of the fish population will disappear if the coral reefs are destroyed. This fragile ecosystem provides a habitat for endemic and globally threatened species, such as the endangered Indo-Pacific humphead wrasse and threatened species of marine turtles. Due to their isolated location, these reef habitats may be largely protected from the effects of global warming and, to date, have been unaffected by bleaching and other detrimental climatic effects. This ecosystem, therefore, provides a natural laboratory for the study of climate change impacts on coral communities.
The persistence of marine litter, in particular lightweight plastic items, along the coast of Aqaba is the result of the public’s lack of awareness about the consequences of their actions regarding littering and poor practices of solid waste management. Source: Mohammad S. Al-Tawaha / JREDS
Plastic material is the most common type of marine debris
Aqaba is the only city with coastal access in Jordan, situated on the narrow 27 km long coastline on the Gulf of Aqaba. The area is strategically important and the vast majority of all consumer goods and foodstuffs for the country are shipped through the ASEZ.
However, the Jordanian coastline is subject to considerable environmental resource pressure resulting from a variety of anthropogenic practices, such as littering, unsustainable mass tourism, construction of mega projects, increasing industrial activity and trade. Marine litter, in particular plastic garbage, poses a growing threat to the marine and coastal environment and contributes to the decline of the coral coverage in Jordan from 40-50% in 1998 to around 25% in 2008. The recovery of coral reefs takes decades since they grow at a rate of around 1cm a year.
Jordan represents the global problem of marine litter on a smaller scale. Most of the litter is plastic. Official figures of the Ministry of Environment indicate that around 400,000 tons of plastic garbage is generated in Jordan each year. Plastic bags are among authorities’ main environmental concerns. Every individual uses an average of 1.5 plastic bags per day and 500 plastic bags per year. A total of three billion plastic bags are used in Jordan every year, only 20% of them find their way to landfills, while most of them end up in the sea, polluting the marine ecosystem. Plastic bags kill corals by covering and suffocating them, or by blocking sunlight needed for corals to live.
Microplastics in the aquatic food chain
Since the beginning of its widespread usage in 1950’s, plastic as the most utilized and persistent material, arises as the primary contaminant in the marine environment. It has turned into a widespread environmental pollution problem since plastic degrades very slowly and lasts for many years, swimming in the ocean, covering beaches and being swept into the ocean again. Faisal Abu Sondos, Executive Director of the Royal Marine Conservation Society of Jordan (JREDS) said that 80% of the sea litter results from the countryside and more than 60% is plastic.
Meanwhile, researchers at the Finnish Environment Institute (SYKE) have successfully demonstrated that microplastics are transferred in the marine food web. Plastic floats in the sea for many years where it is exposed to sunlight (photodegradation) causing it to break down into little pieces until the accumulation sector, e.g. the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation region loses 622 billion US$ annually.
Faisal Abu Sondos warned that damaging the coral reefs will have a negative socioeconomic impact on local inhabitants, affecting the glass-bottom boats and diving sectors at the Gulf of Aqaba. “We are destroying the coral reefs and thus destroying our tourism”, Abu Sondos exposed.
There are 21 diving spots in Aqaba and 20 diving clubs that rely on the coral reefs to attract tourists. According to Abu Sondos destruction of the coral reefs is already happening with the number of households relying on fishing for a living decreased over the past decade from 300 to 600 families, all due to the dwindling fish population.
Most of the plastic garbage is thoughtlessly thrown away by beach visitors and ends up drifting in the sea.
Source: Georg Respondek / JREDS
Public and private contribution to marine debris
The current population for Aqaba City is projected to increase by more than 50% from approximately 100,000 to over 160,000 people by 2020, creating significant additional environmental resource pressure. However, the majority of the population of Jordan is living in remote areas and cities in the north of the country, far away from the coast.
Nevertheless, the inhabitants in these areas contribute to a significant portion of the plastic garbage which ends up in the sea. Lots of the marine garbage is dumped irregularly in valleys and afterwards flushed out by floods, lightweight items like plastic bags are also blown to the sea by the wind. The persistence of marine litter in Jordan is the result of poor practices of solid waste management including inaccurate waste disposal facilities. Most of Jordan’s municipalities dispose their solid waste in unsanitary landfills with no protective lining and long-term management. Furthermore, a lack of awareness of the public at large about the consequences of their actions leads to low demand for solutions and thoughtless dumping of solid waste in streets and landscape.
The Jordan private sector also contributes negatively to the polluted marine environment. Most of the packages are made out of plastic, e.g. pastries in plastic wrap. The tourism industry uses many plastic products, such as soap and plastic carrier bags, and a separation of waste does only exist in some eco-friendly hotels and resorts. The food and beverage industry contributes with a high amount of plastic for consumer goods packing, e.g. plastic bottles, and the retail industry with a massive use of plastic bags and unregulated use of plastic wrapping to the marine ecosystem degradation at the Gulf of Aqaba.
The northern-most coral reef system of the Gulf of Aqaba has a high environmental and human value with around 127 species of hard coral and 300 kinds of soft coral, as well as 500 species of fish and thousands of plants and animals. Source: Royal Marine Conservation Society of Jordan
Tackling the problem of marine litter
Marine litter is part of the broader problem of waste management, which is a major public health and environmental concern in Jordan. Through establishing a “sense” for marine litter in the Kingdom of Jordan, the consequence of dumping litter must be made visible in order to bring about a change in peoples’ behaviour.
This change in awareness and behaviour is a first step and will allow for successful implementation of other projects addressing at the establishment of appropriate disposal facilities, recycling systems and the reduction of use of plastic for consumer goods packaging. The improved awareness towards this issue will start with decision-makers that pursue stricter laws for protecting the environment and stricter enforcement of these laws. The high pressure on the natural resources of Jordan’s coast poses significant challenges to effective management and conservation of this unique environment.
For instance, the Royal Marine Conservation Society of Jordan (JREDS), an NGO dedicated to preserving and protecting the marine ecosystem at the Gulf of Aqaba, reduces pressure on national reefs from tourism, industry and shipping by organizing so-called Clean Up the World Campaigns.
Since 2006, JREDS collected 4.5 t of garbage during the last eight clean up campaigns.
“The clean-up campaigns will not necessarily curb the litter,” Abu Sondos said. “What is needed is an advocacy campaign and to introduce penalties that ban litter. Some efforts already have been made by the Jordanian authorities for a better marine environment.
The Royal Marine Conservation Society of Jordan (JREDS) is organizing clean up campaigns to conserve the fragile marine ecosystem of the Gulf of Aqaba. Since 2006, JREDS collected 4.5 tonnes of garbage during the last eight Clean Up The World Campaigns. Source: Mohammad S. Al Tawaha / JREDS
However, there is still a lot to be done in order to conserve Aqaba’s Red Sea waters and beaches.” JREDS also organizes an exhibition about marine litter in Amman, Jordan. The exhibition “Plastic garbage – Out to Sea?” is expected to increase the perception of the importance of preventing plastic garbage by refusing unnecessary packaging, reducing the waste that goes to land fills and recycling. The Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH is supporting JREDS within the program “Protection of the Environment and Biodiversity in Jordan” in order to raise awareness and increase knowledge about the environment and biodiversity for a behavioral change within the Jordanian population.
However, the behaviour towards marine litter will not change without providing the necessary infrastructure. Sustainable disposal facilities, recycling stations, harmonized recycling processes and efficient supply chains are all needed, but to ultimately tackle the issue facing Jordan’s marine life, a combination of approaches are needed – raising awareness, extending producer responsibility, setting economic incentives such as fees or taxes, promoting effective law enforcement, monitoring and compliance of existing marine litter and implementing legislation.
Only when these parameters are put in place will Jordan’s coastal environment improve, allowing the Gulf of Aqaba to truly establish itself as one of the richest marine ecosystems in the world.
Writer: Sven Stöbener is Technical Advisor of Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH in Jordan and former spokesperson of the European Business & Biodiversity Campaign (EBBC). He identifies and assesses the business risks and opportunities arising from ecosystem change and writes articles and reports about the sustainable use of biodiversity in order to strengthen private sector commitment for biodiversity and ecosystem services.