ROCHESTER, New York — All along West Africa’s coastline, countries are struggling to contain the fallout from flooding and coastal erosion and to find sustainable solutions to what is a permanent and intractable problem. Most of the population of this region, which stretches from Mauritania to Gabon, is located along the coastline, along with most of its economy and GDP. As is often the case, the poorest people are bearing the brunt of this crisis, facing the loss of their neighborhoods and livelihoods. The scope of the problem facing the people and their governments – ranging from macro engineering strategies for protecting coastlines to individual solutions for relocating families or communities – is essential to any study of coastal erosion and poor communities’ loss in West Africa.
The Causes of Coastal Erosion
From the perspective of community poverty, there are three key elements of this issue: the coastal erosion itself, its causes and possible solutions; housing loss and the consequent homelessness or resettlement of communities; and the loss of economic opportunities for people living along the coast.
While the causes of coastal erosion can vary, some stem from human activities – in particular, illegal sand mining. Although remedying this problem is not enough to completely halt the process of land loss, it could be an important part of slowing it down. Enforcement measures, in addition to proactive measures such as the construction of sea walls and barriers, are likely necessary.
Each year the coast retreats approximately 2 meters (6 feet) along much of the coast. This might not appear significant, but in the densely inhabited coastal regions of West Africa, where 105 million people are located, cities are built right up to the waterline. Rising seas make each successive storm more destructive, and entire neighborhoods are being washed into the ocean. Some villages have become islands, according to UNESCO.
The effect is to displace individuals and entire communities from their homes. The governments of most of these nations do not have the necessary means to easily find these people new homes, and the solutions they do find are often detrimental in their own way: New housing is often farther inland, resettled people find themselves without easy access to their previous occupations, according to Global Citizen. Moreover, new lodging can be of poorer quality than people’s original homes. It is vital to resolve this issue in a sustainable and well-planned manner; inadequate responses aggravate the economic fallout for poor communities.
The economic impact of coastal erosion further exacerbates the financial difficulties for poor communities. With 56% of the region’s economic production located along the coast, so many economic sectors are at risk, according to Global Citizen. Many locals, however, are fishermen, and they face increasing challenges fishing their traditional waters, as well as in accessing the ocean if they relocate far inland. Due to the nature of their work, poorer communities are not as economically resilient.
This underscores the confluence of challenges arising from coastal erosion and poor communities’ loss in West Africa: rising sea levels are coinciding with rising economic and population growth along the coast, with severely negative consequences for poor coastal communities, which are simultaneously losing both their homes and their livelihoods to the sea.
Efforts to Address the Issue
Any efforts to address these problems face an uphill battle, but there are a few efforts to both counter erosion and alleviate the effects on poor communities. Some areas are planting mangroves to rebuild damaged ecosystems and better hold sand and soil in place. Along some stretches of the coastline, governments are building seawalls to lessen the Atlantic’s pressure on the shore.
A robust effort is being made through the World Bank’s West Africa Coastal Areas Management Program (WACA). A wide-ranging program, WACA consists of many investment projects focused on helping working communities, coastal maintenance and planning projects and the development of dialogue between experts and affected countries to share techniques and learned lessons. Some recent projects include studies of mangrove forest restoration, community outreach programs, and investments in women-owned businesses.
Coastal erosion and poor communities’ loss in West Africa are serious problems, affecting thousands of people in an economically vital and densely populated part of a rapidly developing continent.
– Paul Phelan