Coastal Zone Ecosystems

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  • The Institute for Water, Environment and Health (UNU-INWEH) aims to incorporate three broad areas into the activities of the Coastal Zone Ecosystems Programme: research on threatened ecosystem functioning, monitoring and assessment of pollution impacts, and integrating coastal management with development.

    The work on threatened ecosystems has a particular focus on coral reefs and mangrove ecosystems. Applied research to improve scientific understanding of how these critical ecosystems function will foster sound decision-making. Research links directly to capacity development in order to address critical gaps through the transfer of knowledge and promotion of human and institutional capacity. This programme also develops regional monitoring programmes to better understand the sources and impacts of pollutants in the coastal ecosystems as a first step towards mitigation and amelioration. Such activities are also an effective capacity building tool. This programme also incorporates a development approach, which provides for effective integration of management for coastal and offshore development, onshore industry, and agriculture in adjacent inland watersheds.


    Negotiations continue on the establishment of a twin with Alexandria University, Egypt. Recent political changes in that country have delayed the process substantially but indications are that the university remains an interested party. A key indicator is the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding in October 2011, which establishes the basis for joint research activities and for development of collaborative academic programmes.

    Focal Point

    This programme is led by Professor Peter Sale, who is a world-renowned coastal ecologist. He also relies on his extensive networks of colleagues in leading coastal research institutions around the world.


    Continuing human migration and population growth mean that 40 percent of humans now live within 50 km of a coastline, and average population density in coastal areas is over twice the world average. The environmental goods and services provided by coastal environments are of growing importance for us, yet our negative impacts on coastal ecosystems are also mounting. The aim of this programme is to improve the management of these complex coastal systems by addressing the fundamental gaps in our understanding of ecosystem functions and the impacts of human activities on them.


    Programmatic activities focus on threatened coastal ecosystems of tropical waters — particularly mangroves and coral reefs. UNU-INWEH continues to build and synthesize scientific knowledge about these systems to impact policy formulation and application. We are also expanding our efforts to build the capacity of developing countries to monitor and actively manage their coastal ecosystems. The research and policy bridging function is also selectively directed to tropical coastlines. It aims to deliver major policy guidance on integrated coastal management, including management of land-based sources of toxic pollution and nutrient overload, which are a major threat to all types of coastal ecosystems.


    UNU-INWEH ensures that project teams include significant participation by women. For example, we have financially supported more women than men as students in the various projects in this programme. There is also particular attention being paid to developing leadership amongst women in the coastal research community.

    Target Audience

    The main audiences are: coastal managers, community leaders in coastal settings, policymakers and the international coastal research community. The programme outputs are tailored to these distinct groups.

    Intended Impact

    Impact: Influencing policymaking in the United Nations System
    Target: The aim is to facilitate the priority-setting by partners in the UN system.
    How: The interface with the audience at national level is done through the participation of national agencies in training and outreach activities, awareness raising through seminars, and targeted recommendations provided through publications

    Impact: Influencing policymaking at the national level
    Target: The main objective is to help improve integration of effort among agencies responsible for aspects of coastal environmental management, and better connect these with national policymakers. This would help foster better and science-based national policies.
    How: The interface with the audience at national level is done through the participation of national agencies in demonstration projects, training and outreach activities, awareness-raising through seminars, and targeted recommendations provided through publications

    Impact: Furthering knowledge in an academic field
    Target: The programme addresses major gaps in coastal knowledge. A main area is to help extend the scientific foundation for design and management of networks of Marine Protected Areas.
    How: The programme undertakes targeted research on understanding the scientific credibility of existing Marine Protected Areas. This is done through an extensive network of over 10 research institutions.

    Impact: Capacity development in developed/developing countries
    Target: The programme aims to build the capacity of developing countries to monitor and actively manage their coastal ecosystems.
    How: A major approach to capacity development is through the formation of regional networks focused on ecosystem analysis, monitoring and management with respect to conservation and pollution. There is also a specific effort under way to facilitate government institutions in the Meso-American and Caribbean region to monitor pollution in coastal areas; this is directly correlated to management of impacts from constructed coastal environments and other land-based activities.

    Research Findings

    Projects within this programme tend to include a significant component of targeted research. Principle focus through 2012 will include: a) evaluation of management improvements needed to ensure environmental sustainability of coastal ecosystems in rapidly changing regions such as the Persian Gulf; and b) mechanisms to integrate pollution management into coastal zone management in locations such as the Caribbean where coastal ecosystems often provide more than 50 percent of GDP.

    On the basis of project experience (2003-2009) in the Arabian/Persian Gulf region, we are publishing a detailed technical review of environmental management issues and specific policy recommendations for the region. These research findings were presented in November 2011 and a detailed technical report, with the preliminary title Managing Coastal Seas for the 21st Century, is being prepared during 2012.

    Policy Bridging

    There is a concerted focus on addressing policy audiences through targeted policy recommendations, guidance documents and public events. There are two major policy reports/briefs being launched in 2012. These respectively focus on management of mangrove ecosystems and policy recommendations for regional development in the Arabian/Persian Gulf region. The former is being developed in cooperation with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO); International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO); International Society for Mangrove Ecosystems (ISME); the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO); and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

    Value Added

    This programme provides science-based but policy-relevant focus on integrated coastal zone management (ICZM) — which is widely advocated but minimally used— and the proportion of coastal area with effective levels of ecosystem protection is typically quite low. The professional network also brings together institutions and experts from developed and developing countries who may not otherwise collaborate.


    Dissemination activities from the programme particularly target policy audiences and management agencies in developing countries.

    Timeline/Programme Cycle

    This is an ongoing programme, with multi-year projects with distinct start and end dates. Projects are funded through external donors, notably the World Bank and the Global Environment Facility. It is anticipated that the programme activities will continue in the scope of the current UNU strategic plan (2011-2014). As new projects evolve, it will likely be continued beyond that period as well.


    UNU-INWEH employs a well defined results-based management approach that includes gathering of indicators at the programme- and project-level. This is done on an annual basis and the indicators provide trends in improvement, leading to appropriate management responses. Because each project is co-funded through external partners, evaluation by the partners or independent evaluators provides an extra layer of assessment of success.


    The programme is managing two main challenges. First, external funding resources have become more limited as a result of the recent economic crisis. Second, integration of various scientific fields to arrive at policy-relevant outputs is a difficult task that has required significant input of time and effort.

    Expected Duration

    The programme is expected to run for a duration of 180 months, from 1 January 2006 through 31 December 2020.

  • Activities within the programme will involve cooperation between the UNU Institute for Water, Environment and Health and three partners:

    • Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
    • Global Environment Facility
    • United Nations Environmental Programme
  • Title: Managing Coastal Seas
    Publication/Output Type: Policy brief
    Publisher: UNU-INWEH
    Date Published: 2012

    Title: Mangrove Ecosystems — Threats and Policy Challenges
    Publication/Output Type: Policy Brief
    Publisher: UNU-INWEH (in cooperation with UNESCO, FAO, ITTO, UNEP, ISME)
    Date Published: 2012

  • Dr. Adeel Zafar, Director
    United Nations University
    Institute for Water, Environment and Health
    175 Longwood Road South
    Suite 204
    Hamilton, Ontario
    Canada L8P OA1

    T: +1 905 667-5511
    F: +1 905 667-5510