MIGOMBANI, Zanzibar (AlertNet) – The East African archipelago of Zanzibar is attempting to win “environmental independence” from Tanzania by joining an organisation that promotes the sustainable development of islands in the Indian Ocean.
Zanzibar has lodged a formal membership application with the Indian Ocean Commission (IOC), a regional cooperation body whose current members are Comoros, Mauritius, Seychelles, Madagascar and Reunion.
Although Zanzibar is a semi-autonomous part of Tanzania, officials in the archipelago’s own government, as well as some scientists, maintain that the isles have different needs from the mainland in dealing with climate change.
Backers of Zanzibar’s entry into the IOC argue that membership will help it deal more effectively with environmental threats. Parts of the islands suffer from beach erosion, flooding and high salinity in arable land, which is itself scarce.
Amina Shaaban, Planning Commissioner in the Zanzibar government’s Ministry of Finance and Economic Affairs, listed the development challenges confronting the archipelago as including unsustainable agricultural and livestock practices, depleted fisheries, deforestation, quarrying and sand mining, water pollution, and threats to food security and tourism.
“The question here is not whether we should continue or stop developing,” Shaaban said in April at an IOC-organised workshop on sustainable development planning for Zanzibar. “But rather, we should ask ourselves, ‘How can we strive forward with our economic goals without compromising the carrying capacity of our fragile environment?’”
Zanzibar residents say they increasingly recognise their vulnerability to the changing environment.
Mohamed Nassor Salum, a native of Pemba island, said he supported Zanzibar’s efforts to shore up its environment by joining the international organisation because the marine resources that many Zanzibar residents depend on are under threat.
Bilal Dadar, an information technology specialist who lives in the Zanzibar municipality, said that recurring extreme weather underlined the need for an international alliance to help the islands cope.
“I see the net effect of joining IOC will be positive and protective to our fragile environment,” Dadar said.
OWN ADAPTATION PLAN
In 2010, Zanzibar began to develop a National Adaptation Plan of Action, separate from the Tanzanian mainland, to emphasise Zanzibar’s need for climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies appropriate to small islands.
The United Nations has recognised that “small island developing states” (SIDS) have particular needs and vulnerabilities in regard to sustainable development and climate change. Three IOC members – Comoros, Mauritius and Seychelles – are recognised as SIDS.
Zanzibar hopes to gain status as a non-UN member of SIDS through the IOC, in order to gain much-needed technical and financial support to adapt to climatic change.
Observers say the challenge facing Zanzibar will be to persuade the mainland government of the United Republic of Tanzania (URT), which represents Zanzibar in almost all international climate change negotiations, to allow the isles to gain recognition as one of the SIDS in order to deal with climate change issues, rather than remaining part of the Group of 77 nations, of which Tanzania is a founding member.
Sanju Deenapanray, an IOC official, noted that the G-77 “seemingly caters for comparatively bigger economies like China and India among other countries ... (rather) than small island economies.”
Terezya Huvisa, environment minister in the Tanzanian government, said she could not say whether Zanzibar’s move to join IOC was valid until the issue had been discussed at a quarterly meeting between the vice-presidents of the URT and Zanzibar, due around the middle of the year.
Huvisa added that while the environment was not officially a union matter, the precedent was to treat environmental issues of Zanzibar and the mainland jointly.
“This matter will have to be discussed jointly for Zanzibar to join the IOC,” she said.
Kelly Horton, an environmental scientist with Earth Systems Africa, argued in a 2011 research paper on “Climate Change Governance in Zanzibar: The Need for Environmental Autonomy”, that Zanzibar’s vulnerability to climate change is worsened by its inability to present its specific challenges in the international arena.
According to Horton, while Zanzibar in general “self-funds attendance at international environmental meetings, it is unable to push a small-island agenda, falling under the wing of the Tanzanian mainland, who do not represent SIDS interests.”
She said Zanzibar “requires specialist skills and support to effectively adapt to challenges of climate change,” which can include sea level rise and more extreme weather.
Mohamed Issa is a freelance writer based in Dar es Salaam. This story is part of a series supported by the Climate and Development Knowledge Network.