Helping coastal communities build resilience to climate change

The Universiti Malaya, the University of Plymouth and the University of Exeter.

Group of students crowd round map of Malaysia coastal region

Coastal communities’ health, well-being and livelihoods are highly dependent on oceans, yet there is immense pressure on oceans due to climate change, as well as the conflicting needs of marine resource users. This begs the need for evidence-based and sustainable marine spatial planning to support the livelihoods of coastal communities that depend on the ocean for food security, employment, and well-being.

This has not gone unnoticed by ACU members the University of Plymouth, UK, Universiti Malaya, Malaysia, and the University of Exeter, UK. Through the Blue Communities project, these universities are collaborating on a four-year programme to strengthen research capacity for sustainable marine planning in Southeast Asia, in partnership with other universities, research institutions, non-governmental organisations and local stakeholders in the UK, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines.

The initiative helps communities prepare for climate change by informing mitigation strategies and advising on sustainable marine interventions in areas such as fishing and aquaculture activities within marine environments. By combining local and regional knowledge of climate change impacts and using climate change projections, the initiative helps to assess opportunities and threats and enable decision makers and coastal communities to make risk-informed decisions for livelihood and food security.

Funded by the UK Government’s Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), and led by the University of Plymouth, Blue Communities consists of 12 inter-connected research projects which aim to support marine planning in Southeast Asia. Universiti Malaya is one of the Southeast Asia partners of Blue Communities and is involved in 10 out of 12 of these projects, which range from small-scale fisheries to marine renewable energy.

Tun Mustapha Park (TMP), Malaysia

Led by a group of highly interdisciplinary researchers based at Universiti Malaya, the Blue Communities Malaysian case study (BC MY) site is in Tun Mustapha Park (TMP), in Sabah - a state located in the region of East Malaysia. TMP is one of the largest marine parks in Malaysia in the north coast of Sabah and is home to more than 75% of the coral reefs in Sabah. TMP is also the source of livelihood for more than 80,000 coastal communities with diverse ethnic groups. 

Image Of Coral Reefs In Malayasia

The findings and outputs of BC MY’s research will benefit the coastal communities most vulnerable to the impact of climate change. By providing access to long-term prediction data and an awareness of future threats and opportunities, communities will be in a better position to adapt to the challenges of climate change.

These projections will also provide insights on trends in the distribution of fish, impacts of climate change on fisheries activities, and future health of habitats. Fishers will be more well-informed on the shifts in species distribution and production which could affect livelihood and food security, and fishers can be more prepared to make adaptations such as changing fishing gears to target different species or travel to farther fishing areas. The community health survey and socio-economic data also reveals the importance of addressing the issues based on the nexus of human wellbeing, poverty, and ecosystem services.

Through community out-reach activities and engagement with local stakeholders, the team at the Universiti Malaya proactively shares knowledge to empower local communities. For instance, BC MY worked with local stakeholders to publish a comic book on fish bombing - a fishing method in which individuals throw bottles of explosives into the ocean with a timed fuse. This results in an explosion which then either kills or stuns fish and leaves a devastating impact on marine life. The comic book educated and raised awareness among the young people living in the TMP area about this.

Student Reading Copies Of The Comic Book (Oct 2019)

Student reading educational comic book

BC MY also shares knowledge and their research findings through community festivals and town hall sessions, as well as local NGOs and community-based organisations (CBOs) who then share this knowledge with their members and local communities. The festivals cultivate an awareness among students of the importance of ocean health on the wellbeing and health of coastal communities. Engaging young people and making them feel part of the discussion was an important aspect of this. Rather than just being talked at, students were proactively involved in the festival, and even produced photographs and narratives which were later turned into postcards and calendars and sent to stakeholders. Students typically come away from the community festivals with a deeper understanding of their surroundings and how their actions may impact the environment.

BC MY has also co-developed proposals with the local organisations such as the Kudat Turtle Conservation Society (KTCS) where BC MY plays the role of an advisor.

Informing policy at local and national level

BC MY equips TMP’s management with the knowledge, tools and skills needed to inform sustainable marine spatial planning through training and capacity strengthening activities. The results and outputs of their research will serve as baseline references for the current and future integrated management of marine resources in TMP, with several publications on effects of climate change to fisheries in Southeast Asia (including Sabah) in the pipeline.

Also in the works is a policy brief for the Southeast Asia region which outlines key recommendations for climate-resilient fisheries management, as well as governance recommendations for improved marine protected area management, which will be presented to policymakers.

BC MY will hold information sharing sessions with the stakeholders in TMP including the Sabah and Sarawak Affairs Division (Prime Minister’s Department), Sabah State Health Department, and TMP Steering Committee to share the outcomes and findings from the BC MY projects.

At the national level, the Blue Communities programme is building interdisciplinary research capacity of Malaysian researchers, involving early career researchers and young people in the communities through a series of school programmes and training workshops both in Sabah and Peninsular Malaysia. Through the programme, BC MY works closely and collaboratively with the local stakeholders particularly government agencies and NGOs in identifying the gaps within the current management framework and areas that require improvement in the marine planning process.

One of the highlights of the programme so far has been the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the Universiti Malaya and Sabah Parks in February 2018 which further strengthened and ensured continuous research collaboration and knowledge exchange. Several training sessions took place in the Blue Communities and were extended to the local stakeholders to equip them with knowledge and skills that could benefit them in the management of TMP.

Looking to the future, the BC MY team hopes to establish further stakeholder networks - especially with new coastal communities - to expand their work to other sites and therefore help a greater number of vulnerable coastal communities. Blue Communities thrives on its internationally collaborative and interdisciplinary nature and will continue to work with stakeholders to drive sustainable marine planning forward.

International and interdisciplinary projects like Blue Communities have unlocked so much underlying insights to ocean research including ocean, human health and well-being, and sustainable coastal communities, which would not be possible in the traditional quest of natural science alone’, explains Associate Professor Dr TPr. Hong Ching Goh, the Co-lead of Blue Communities Malaysian case study.