West Africa Is Being Swallowed by the Sea
Encroaching waters off the coast of Togo, Ghana, Mauritania, and others are destroying homes, schools, fish, and a way of life.
Photography by Matilde Gattoni
But it’s not just homes and businesses that are being swept away. Livelihoods, cultural heritage, and the social fabric of entire communities are disappearing as well. Rising temperatures have precipitated the migration of fish stocks while erosion and salinization have reduced arable land and contaminated freshwater reserves. Near Fuvemeh in Ghana, breeding grounds for sea turtles are disappearing, and the populations of dolphins, sharks, and whales are rapidly dwindling. At risk also are the UNESCO-protected colonial forts along the coasts of Ghana and Ivory Coast that served as conduits for the slave trade.
Stripped of their livelihoods and their heritage, coastal communities lose their most resourceful young people to migration while unemployment fuels drug and alcohol consumption at home. In Agbavi, the situation is so desperate that droves of young men have joined criminal syndicates involved in fuel smuggling and beach-sand mining, an illegal enterprise that worsens erosion.
“Some of our children go mining as soon as they come back from school, in order to gain some money,” Koffi says. “People are hungry, and small kids are forced to steal. We are suffering a lot.”
Instead of investing in ecologically sustainable techniques to manage rising sea levels, like developing aquatic farms or restoring mangrove shrubs, governments in West Africa have so far largely resorted to engineering less time-intensive defenses like sea walls and groins. When built properly and maintained well, groins — vertical structures erected perpendicular to the coastline that trap sediments and prevent them from moving along the coast — are an effective short- to medium-term solution. But because they disrupt the natural flow of sediments, they can worsen erosion elsewhere on the coast, sometimes starving neighboring communities of much needed sand.
The eastern coast of Ghana offers a stark illustration of the trade-offs involved with groins. Once a thriving trading hub, the city of Keta has suffered massive coastal erosion in recent decades that forced more than half of the population to flee. Fort Prinzenstein, a landmark Danish castle that was once at the center of town now teeters on the shoreline, partially destroyed by the waves. A late government intervention allowed the construction of a sea defense wall and a series of groins that have saved what remains of the city’s elegant colonial buildings, which retain the eerie atmosphere of a ghost town.
But the last-ditch effort to save Keta has further exacerbated erosion in the village of Blekusu, located a little more than six miles to the east. “We are having so many problems because of those groins,” explains 68-year-old Alice Kwashi, a widow whose house has already been partially damaged by the waves. “The ocean has destroyed electric[al] lines and contaminated water wells. Every time I go to sleep, I know it could be my last night, because the waves could take me away.”