World Ocean Forum
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World Ocean Forum

Megacities by the Sea

Human congestion near the water’s edge. Favela in São Paulo, Brazil

When we are threatened, our natural instinct is to protect ourselves. That truism applies to our bodies, our homes, our families, indeed to all the things we protect and hold precious. So, too, with the ocean, the vast nurturing global resource that is being affected and altered in real and critical ways that threaten our lives in an ever-expanding catalogue of negative impacts and consequences.

How, then, do we protect the ocean?

First, we look to the most obvious threats — the circumstances and conditions that offer the best evidence of the challenges we face. We debate about climate change, CO2 emissions, acidification, plastic pollution, fisheries collapse, extreme weather, sea level rise — all of which are evident in continuing research and real world conditions. The counter-arguments, however, enable procrastination and divert us from modifications and changes that do not require huge investments.

Perhaps the most effective tactic presently in play for ocean conservation is the marine protected area. A growing number of places around the world are being designated and structured to shelter pristine ocean space from intrusive activities. They represent progress, though they are hardly substantial enough in the grand scheme of things. If we are to look for a primary strategy for ocean protection, we must look beyond these distant places, closer to home to the megacities and associated urban and suburban sprawl, the true point source of the most dangerous and deadly contributors to the ongoing pollution of the world ocean.

The 26 largest megacities of more than 10 million residents each are populated by almost 500 million people, growing at a rate of 2 to 4 percent annually. Of these, 20 are coastal; 3 are located on major rivers leading to the ocean; and 3 (Mexico City, Moscow, and Tehran) are inland yet still a factor in the surrounding watershed and atmosphere. Many megacities are also national capitals, and, as such, are centers of policy and governance determining political response to the larger environmental conversation. And new such cities like Johannesburg in South Africa, at 9 million inhabitants, are coming along strong.

These numbers will only continue to grow.

It is in these places that we find the extreme concentration of development, industry, manufacturing, toxic waste, untreated chemicals, plastics, air pollutants, sewage and all the rest that, mixed with groundwater run-off and extreme weather events, turns the quality of air, local rivers, adjacent wetlands, and alongshore areas into zones where sickness incubates, or worse, little or nothing can survive. Smog brings sickness; mangrove swamps are filled; reefs are killed; fresh water is undrinkable; beaches are un-swimmable; fisheries are gone; and the ocean is corrupted at such a mammoth scale that it can never be mitigated by marine protected areas located far away. It is an enormous, ever escalating, mutually degrading process of destruction, much of which is invisible or otherwise lost in a fog of indifference, inaction, deliberate avoidance, cynicism and disillusion. It is not that we don’t know what’s happening; it is that we don’t have the determination to save ourselves from it.

Am I being melodramatic? Alarmist? Perhaps. But what will it take for the reality to sink in? And what happens to those millions within megacities if they become unlivable? Where do the unfathomable numbers of climate refugees go? What do they do? What happens next?

Environmental groups must stop fiddling around the edges where victories are easily won. I believe in these organizations, yet I feel they should find the energy and imagination to modify or change their strategies to turn their focus to the megacities, not the empty spaces. With energy, effort, imagination, and invention we have the power to transform urban spaces into visionary laboratories for change, to transcend the global perspective and look to home, where even the smallest improvements will touch millions of people for the better. I believe they should apply their conservation values and financial resources to a new, integrated strategy that attacks multiple problems at multiple levels within the local community, re-allocating existing capital from within to design and implement technologies and systems, many of which are within our grasp, that will advance a different, coherent, community-based response that challenges conventional situations, processes, and social behaviors now and sets them on end. Let’s take those megacities by the sea and turn them into exemplary marine protected areas.

Peter Neill is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory, a web-based place of exchange for information and educational services about the health of the world ocean. Online at



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World Ocean Forum

World Ocean Forum


Dedicated to proposals for change in ocean policy and action worldwide, linking unexpected people with unexpected ideas about the ocean.