Life is shifting fast for coastal communities in West Africa. In some areas, coastlines are eroding as much as 10 meters per year. Stronger storms and rising seas are wiping out homes, roads and buildings that have served as landmarks for generations.
I was recently in West Africa to witness the effects of coastal erosion. To understand what’s going on, we took a three-country road trip, traveling from Benin’s capital Cotonou, along the coast to Lomé in Togo and then to Keta and Accra in Ghana. These three countries, among the hardest hit by coastal erosion, offer a snapshot of what is happening along the rest of the coast, from Mauritania, via Senegal to Nigeria.
In Ghana, coastal erosion and rising seas are burying some seaside villages, like Fuveme, which is now completely under sand. As in neighboring countries, hydrocarbon exploration is well underway not too far from the shore, and coastal urban areas are expanding. The fish stock has declined dramatically, and formerly thriving fishing communities are in trouble.
Togolese families often place talismans, thought to contain magical or spiritual properties, outside their homes facing the Atlantic Ocean in hopes of protecting their dwellings from encroaching tides.
Unfortunately, dozens of villages have been devoured since the mid-1990s, leaving behind shells of houses, livelihoods and memories in the wake of a coast receding as much as 5-10 meters per year. When expatriates return to Togo’s coast to visit their childhood homes, they are astonished to see that communities have literally washed out to sea.
Following a long tradition of economists, the newly-elected government in Benin can gain inspiration from geography. For economist Jeffrey Sachs, university professor at New York’s Columbia University, many tropical countries have failed to grow because their hot climate facilitated the propagation of epidemic diseases. Economist Paul Collier, professor of economics and public policy in the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxfod, has argued that Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) is lagging because of its disproportionate number of people living far from the ocean and thus from global markets. Similarly, French historian Fernand Braudel’s work reminds us that many urban centers only became “true” drivers of growth when they were able to host processing industries, which are usually absent in Africa.