Protecting the heart and lungs of the planet
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Protecting the heart and lungs of the planet



One year after the launch of the Clean Oceans Initiative, the European Investment Bank wants to use its success in tackling plastic pollution as a springboard to safeguard the wider blue economy.

The floods that submerged Benin in September 2010 were the worst the small West African country had suffered for almost half a century. The disaster was reported to have been directly responsible for 46 deaths, destroyed 50,000 homes and left 100,000 people without shelter. At an economic level, the damage caused to crops, farmland and infrastructure was estimated at over $250m, or 2% of Benin’s GDP in 2010.

The irreversible damage caused by the flooding to the Atlantic Ocean is considerably harder to quantify. But in Cotonou, Benin’s largest city and economic centre, where the unpaved roads are inadequately maintained, its drainage infrastructure substandard and many of its houses lacking access to modern sewers, tonnes of highly polluting waste had nowhere to go but the Gulf of Guinea.

The tragedy of disasters such as the Benin floods of 2010 is that the devastating impact they have on people’s lives and on the environment is largely preventable. This is why the European Investment Bank (EIB) recently signed a €50m loan to help Cotonou improve storm water management and protect the city’s 460,000 residents from similarly destructive cyclical floods in the future.

Benin flood
Benin: The damage caused to crops, farmland and infrastructure was estimated at over $250m, or 2% of Benin’s GDP

Co-financed by the European Investment Bank (EIB), the World Bank (WB) and Agence Française de Développement (AFD), this project is part of a wider programme, which includes other catchment areas and emergency works, that will be financed by the African Development Bank (AfDB), the Islamic Development Bank (IsDB) and the West African Development Bank (WADB).

By upgrading storm water drainage and fortifying Benin’s coastal shores, the project will reduce flooding of houses and the stagnation of rainwater in urban areas. It will also serve the global public good by stemming the discharge of plastics and other waste pollution into the Atlantic Ocean via the Gulf of Guinea.

It does not take extreme weather events such as the Benin rains, however, to cause millions of tonnes of rubbish and effluent to be disgorged into the world’s fragile oceans. With as many as 2 billion people still living in communities with no or inadequate waste collection, garbage is routinely dumped in rivers and the sea.

By providing cities throughout the developing world with more efficient waste and stormwater management facilities, initiatives such as the Cotonou project will have a decisive role to play in slowing and preventing the discharge of waste into the oceans.

Plastic deluge

Above all, projects of this kind will help address the damage created by the estimated 8m tonnes of plastic waste and 1.5m tonnes of microplastics that are discharged into the oceans each year. If nothing is done to arrest this flow, it has been estimated that by 2050 there will be more plastics than fish in the world’s oceans.

The impact would be devastating at an economic as well as an environmental level. Oceans are a key source of food, medicines, renewable energy and natural resources for billions of people, and an irreplaceable source of economic activity and job creation in coastal communities around the globe, many of them in poor countries. Worldwide, it is estimated that the value of goods and services produced by marine and coastal resources is €2.5tr a year.

Aside from the critical contribution they make to sustainable development and poverty alleviation, the oceans absorb close to a third of the planet’s carbon dioxide and as much as 90% of the excess heat created by global warming. This puts them in the front line of the battle against climate change, which is why protecting the world’s oceans is every bit as important in buffering the impact of global warming as reducing the planet’s dependence on fossil fuels.

If any arguments were needed to signal the urgency of this issue, the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report provides it very starkly. EIB vice president Emma Navarro, who oversees climate policy at the Bank, says: “This new IPCC report is another critical reminder of the importance of protecting the oceans.

Emma Navarro, EIB vice president: “The true potential of the blue economy can only be achieved if our oceans’ health is secured”

“It provides valuable scientific information about how rapidly climate change is affecting the oceans and glaciers. This report is an urgent call for all of us to act.

“The European Investment Bank is ready. As the EU’s climate bank, we have been at the forefront of global efforts to address the climate emergency, investing over €125bn since 2012 in climate action, including ocean and coastal projects and we are strongly committed to continue supporting investment and initiatives to address these crucial challenges. We are now ready to step up what we are doing as part of a broader commitment to more climate and environmental actions.”

Werner Schmidt, director of the environment and sustainable territorial development department at the EIB, who leads a team of almost 100 engineers and economists dedicated to addressing water, wastewater, solid waste and flood-related challenges, echoes that. “We consider oceans to be the real heart and lungs of the planet,” he says.

Clean Oceans Initiative

It was recognition of the long-term threats caused by the discharge of plastic and other waste into oceans that was behind the launch in October 2018 of the Clean Oceans Initiative.

Supported by the EIB alongside AFD and the German promotional bank, KfW, it is an important source of loans, grants and technical assistance for projects reducing the discharge of plastics and other waste into the oceans. This can be achieved by increasing the collection, treatment, recycling and proper disposal of plastics and other waste in coastal and river-based cities, and in ports and harbours.

The initiative also supports schemes dedicated to improving wastewater management, reducing plastics and microplastics, and improved stormwater management as exemplified above.


The originally stated goal of the Clean Oceans Initiative was to provide €2bn of financing over five years to public and private sector projects. A year after its launch, the Clean Oceans Initiative had already achieved more than a third of this target, with loans worth around €700m signed.

While its scope is global, the principal focus to date of the Clean Oceans Initiative has been on rivers and coastal areas in Asia and Africa. The Cotonou storm water management project is one vivid example of a project financed under this scheme with demonstrable economic and environmental benefits.

A second example in Africa is the Kitchener Drain project in Egypt, a €441m initiative supporting the depollution of the Nile Delta. The Nile is one of the 10 rivers collectively responsible for an estimated 80%-90% of waste discharges by rivers into the ocean.

The EIB is providing a loan of €214m in support of the wastewater and sanitation component of the Kitchener Drain. This will help to reduce the flow of waste into the Mediterranean Sea from the 69km drain, which is the leading source of irrigation water for close to 200,000 hectares of agricultural land.

It is a model of multilateral co-operation as the project comprises investments financed by the EIB, grants under the EU’s Neighbourhood Investment Facility (NIF), and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in wastewater and sanitation, solid waste, and drain rehabilitation. It is the first of its kind in Egypt. As a result, approximately 6 million people are expected to benefit from improved and new sanitation and solid waste services.

A third notable example of a project that has been supported by the EIB alongside the Inter-American Development Bank under the Clean Oceans Initiative is a water and sanitation development in the district of Partido Escobar in Buenos Aires, where only a small number of households are connected to sewers.

An $80m loan approved by the EIB to upgrade the district’s sewer network and wastewater treatment plant will improve access to sanitation services for more than 24,000 residents.

From the perspective of the global environment, meanwhile, the Argentine wastewater treatment plant will capture and reuse the methane produced in the process, restricting the emission of harmful greenhouse gases. By addressing the issue of plastic pollution in the Rio Reconquista, it will also reduce the flow of harmful plastics and microplastics into the Atlantic Ocean.

Drop in the ocean

Although he is delighted by the progress made by the Clean Oceans Initiative in its first year, Schmidt says the EIB’s next challenge is to explore ways of safeguarding the blue economy in areas extending well beyond preventing land-generated aquatic pollution.

“The success of the Clean Ocean Initiative in its first year triggered reflections within the EIB that to focus purely on removal of plastics from the oceans won’t be sufficient,” he says. “We recognise that we now need to take a big step forward and tackle the broader issues raised by the sustainable development of the blue economy.”

Over the longer term as far as the oceans are concerned, this will mean focusing increasingly on areas such as coastal protection, aquaculture, sustainable seafood production, blue biotechnology and green shipping — all of which will support innovation and job creation, as well as the protection of vulnerable ecosystems.

Clean Oceans Initiative

The EIB recognises, however, that the resources it has at its disposal to counter and reverse environmental destruction is a drop in the ocean compared to what will be needed if irreversible damage is to be forestalled.  “We have to be humble and recognise that this is not a problem that we can solve on our own,” says Navarro.

“We regard ourselves as a crowding-in bank, which means using our firepower to promote private investment. As with the climate challenge, it is clear that public intervention alone will be insufficient to combat marine pollution.”

Schmidt says he is encouraged by the interest that has clearly already been stimulated by the Clean Oceans Initiative. “As well as being on track to meet our targets, we have attracted a number of peer institutions and private sector investors which have expressed an interest in partnering with us in the area of marine protection,” he says.

The EIB’s advisory and technical assistance will play a pivotal role in encouraging more investors to put their weight behind combating marine pollution. “The next step for us is to identify innovative projects and operations that have tangible benefits, but which are also demonstrable as case studies for others,” says Jonas Byström, lead engineer in the EIB’s urban development divisions.

“Solid waste is one example of an area which is under-represented in our portfolio and where we will be using technical assistance funds to identify and prepare replicable projects with high impact and demonstration potential.”

Blue circular economy

Another key component of the EIB’s oceans strategy will be supporting the blue circular economy by, for example, exploring sustainable solutions for turning the problem of the discharge of waste into an economic opportunity.

“A priority is to find ways of improving the collection of plastics and other waste and ensuring this does not end up in landfills, many of which are located in coastal or riverine areas,” explains Byström.

“Good quality plastics are to a large extent already being recycled, but the challenge now is to explore ways to extend this recycling even further, and explore ways in which the private sector can valorise poorer quality plastics and thus support the growth of the circular economy.”

Another important challenge is to address the ocean discharge microplastics, which Juan Bofill, senior water engineer at the EIB, explains are generally defined as plastic fragments less than 5mm in length. These have an especially destructive impact on the environment, because as well as threatening marine biodiversity, they could aggravate global warming by accumulating in ice. This in turn could affect the degree of light reflection and may increase the solar radiation absorbed by the surface, thus contributing to global warming.

Partido Escobar sewer network
Argentina: An $80m loan approved by the EIB to upgrade the Partido Escobar sewer network and wastewater treatment plant will improve access to sanitation services for more than 24,000 residents

“More than 1.5 million tonnes of microplastics are discharged into the oceans each year,” says Bofill. “Some new solutions are currently being studied using microbes that degrade and eliminate microplastics. Our strategy will be to find pilot projects in areas such as this and promote their replication on a larger scale.”

While developing countries are the main target of the EIB’s commitment to safeguarding the oceans and supporting the growth of the sustainable blue economy, it also recognises the importance of extending assistance to Europe. According to a report published by the European Commission in 2018, the EU’s blue economy has a gross turnover of €566bn, creates €174bn of added value and sustains almost 3.5m jobs.

As Emma Navarro, who as a Spaniard comes from a country whose maritime economy accounts for the livelihoods of millions of people, says: “This is an economic, environmental and climatic emergency. And it is happening right now.

“Our oceans and seas are under threat and we simply cannot afford not to act. In the EU, around a third of the population lives within 50km of the coast and these areas generate over 30% of EU’s GDP. The true potential of the blue economy can only be achieved if our oceans’ health is secured.” 

Further reading from the EIB

Towards a decarbonised future

Spearheading alignment with the Paris agreement

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