While doing research for a Duke University study on jobs in Gulf Coast restoration, I met an affable entrepreneur named Robert “Bob” Wetta. He is the president of DSC Dredge, a small business founded by his father in the early 1990s. DSC Dredge manufactures portable hydraulic dredges for use in mining, navigation, and environmental restoration. The family-owned firm has over 100 employees, who work on the design, construction, and servicing of dredging equipment at DSC’s facilities in Reserve, La., a St. John the Baptist Parish community near the western edge of the New Orleans metropolitan area.

As a native Louisianan, Wetta is all too familiar with the precarious state of the Gulf Coast’s wetlands, and knows how important the strategic placement of sediment by comparatively nimble portable dredges can be when confronting local issues like sea level rise, subsidence in the Mississippi River Delta, and the aftermath of the 2010 oil spill. However, his view of vulnerability and corporate response extends far beyond the southeastern section of the Bayou State. Indeed, DSC’s president is increasingly setting his sights on similar risks of flooding and land loss in another region known for its densely settled coastal plains, verdant deltas, and periodic tropical storm landings — South and Southeast Asia.

“About half of all Americans  – more than 150 million people — live in counties bordering the Atlantic Ocean, the Pacific Ocean, and the Gulf of Mexico, and in many of these areas, restoration of coastal wetlands could enhance natural and artificial defenses for flood protection,” says Mr. Wetta. “When you then think about how important the issue of flood resilience is for a nation like Bangladesh, where that same number of people is crowded into a small, flat country smack in the path of cyclones, you start to see why dredgers could play a significant role in saving a city like Dhaka from disaster.”

The map above shows indexed sea level rise risks for the coastal regions of countries in South Asia (left panel) and Southeast Asia (right panel). Red and brown shading indicates countries that face the most severe risks from this environmental threat, due to the heavy concentration of cities and population centers in vulnerable areas within their borders. (Source: Center for Global Development)

The map above shows indexed sea level rise risks for the coastal regions of countries in South Asia (left panel) and Southeast Asia (right panel). Red and brown shading indicates countries that face the most severe risks from this environmental threat, due to the heavy concentration of cities and population centers in vulnerable areas within their borders. (Source: Center for Global Development)

In response to sea level rise, Asian countries like IndiaCambodia , Indonesia and Vietnam are developing their own integrated coastal restoration programs that incorporate heavy construction along with natural flood protection measures such as shoreline mangrove swamps and restored coastal wetlands. Since these countries will need portable dredges to carry out much of the work, this presents a terrific opportunity for Wetta’s business to expand its footprint in an export market with tremendous growth potential.

A DSC "Shark" class dredge at work on a coastal restoration project (Source: DSC Dredge)

He explained to me that in order for manufacturing companies like his to be competitive in the global market, they need to innovate, which often requires substantial capital investment in research and development. But companies are often wary of committing resources to innovation unless there is sufficient product demand to help them recoup their investment. Wetta wishes that more interest in restoration investment could come from U.S. stakeholders, explaining, “For dredge manufacturing firms like ours, we know that more of our demand could come from public works projects like coastal restoration here in America.  Unfortunately, public funding for such projects is sporadic and sometimes falls short of what is needed. By comparison, there are other countries that have established dedicated funding streams to commit much more to their coasts.”

A DSC "Shark" class dredge at work on a coastal restoration project (Source: DSC Dredge)

A DSC "Shark" class dredge at work on a coastal restoration project (Source: DSC Dredge)

For example, the Netherlands, whose area is roughly twice that of the state of New Jersey, invests about 0.1% of its annual gross domestic product (GDP) (550 million Euros, or $732 million, at an exchange rate of US $1.33 = €1) in coastal restoration and flood protection. This funding provides a huge incentive for private firms in the low-lying country to focus on these sectors and become market leaders. If the United States were to spend a similar proportion of its GDP on protecting thickly-settled coastlines and river valleys from ecosystem damage and floods, we would be seeing investment to the tune of $13 – $15 billion dollars each year in dredging, site redesign, and other facets of wetland restoration and resilience enhancements.

Committing more resources to ecosystem restoration would give firms like DSC Dredge the confidence to invest in the innovations necessary to maintain their global competitiveness. Securing this investment in the Gulf Coast’s wetlands would not only help that region’s businesses, but could also make the United States as a whole a leader in the coastal restoration and management industry —  a sector that will only grow bigger in a wetter and warmer world.