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Vanishing homes: coping with rising sea levels

October 16, 2023
topic:Climate action
tags:#Cameroon, #sea level rise, #climate change, #food security
located:Cameroon, Kenya, Rwanda, Egypt
by:Isaac Genna Forchie
In the Gulf of Guinea, sea level rise is an undeniable reality. Here is how locals respond.

Remnants of shattered houses stand as an offbeat decoration at the busy beaches of Kribi, a rapidly-growing Cameroonian coastal town. Strong and angry waves battered buildings situated too close to the shoreline, leading to the tragic loss of dozens of lives over the last two months. The government and NGOs are working urgently to 'appease' the wrath of the Atlantic Ocean, which seems to be redefining its limits.

Nouhou Bello, the highest-ranking government official in the district, has prohibited new construction within 150 meters of the sea. Police have also been deployed to enforce a swimming ban imposed by the administration for both tourists and local communities.

Meanwhile, the Cameroon Wildlife Conservation Society has been expediting a tree planting initiatives to support CO2 absorption efforts. 

Some 70,000 people live in Kribi, one of Central Africa's most attractive resorts. Cameroon’s Tourism Ministry said that roughly 60,000 tourists, primarily from Europe, America and Asia, visit the town every year. 

Inhabitants who have constructed buildings dangerously close to the shoreline now face imminent eviction by local authorities. And while the eviction process has not yet begun, officials are urging shoreline inhabitants to move to safer town areas. However, the affected individuals lament the expenses and lack of government support.

The increasing water levels and coastal erosion pose a grave risk, with heightening concerns as denizens fear further casualties and irreparable damage.

"When I was a kid, we walked on this path, which at the time was some 100 metres away from the sea," Christelle Ewombe, a Kribi-based fish vendor, said. "But today, the same path is less than 25 metres from the sea."

"The sea has engulfed the land," she added. 

The fish vendor shared that life has become unbearable for them as their sole source of income is the sea. 

"For 12 days now, I have not sold a single kilogram of fish," she said, adding that high tides have scared fishermen after four of their colleagues drowned in Londji, a small fishing community in Kribi. Three more remain missing after their boat has been shattered by violent waves.

last July, a toddler and a 40-year old were killed by floods along the coast in Douala, Cameroon's economic capital. This happened just days after a similar incident claimed five lives in the resort town Limbe. 

On 23 July, 40 lives were lost when a four-story building in Douala collapsed following a heavy downpour. Located along the borders of Cameroon's largest river, the Sanaga, as well as the Wouri River and the Atlantic Ocean, the town frequently grapples with the overflow of several tributaries into these major rivers and the sea, which weakens the soil. Additionally, architects responsible for local infrastructure faced blame for allegedly neglecting proper construction measures.

The recent happenings in Kribi and the west coast of Africa is linked to a combination of several factors, Dr Feumba Rodrigue Aimé, Coordinator of the Climate Change Independent Observatory, told FairPlanet. "Global warming is at the heart of this," he said. 

In his view, Human actions, including the settling of this "sensitive place" are to blame for the current events. "Urbanisation, resulting from the construction of the Kribi deep-sea port, has also contributed to increasing pressure on available land," Dr Rodrigue Aimé said.

As the new seaport attracted more people and businesses into the town, the need for land increased, he said, forcing people to construct their homes inches from the sea. A recent study states that Kribi is now home to some 93,000 people, up from 70,000 occupants in 2013. The seaport spans some 26,000 hectares.  

Dr Rodrigue Aimé further noted that the gradual disappearance of the Kribian mangrove has also been contributing to sedimentary imbalance and the altering of coastal dynamics in the area - a fact confirmed by other scientists.  

According to a 2021 study by Fulbert Rodrigue Zogning Lontsi, there is a concerning decline in mangrove coverage in the Douala coastal area. The research revealed a substantial reduction, with total coverage decreasing from 467.11 hectares in 1974 to less than 357.53 hectares by 2020.

A 2022 academic study titled 'Weakening of Coastlines and Coastal Erosion in the Gulf of Guinea,' also found a significant change in the stability of the Kribi coastal area. The study revealed that from 1973 to the early 2000s, the Kribi coastal linear data remained relatively stable at a rate of +3 meters per year. However, data collected between 2013 and 2019 showed a notable increase in the average retreat of the Kribian coastline, now at -8.5 meters per year.

Climatologists Warn of greater Danger ahead

According to Dr Suiven John Paul Tume, an agro-hydro climatologist and environmental geographer at the University of Bamenda, the recent incidents along the Cameroonian coastline serve as a forewarning of future challenges.

"We should expect more of these extreme weather events," Dr Tume told FairPlanet. 

The Climatologist, who also works at one of Cameroon’s schools of transport and logistics, warned that, "The climate is changing [Irreversibly]."

But Dr Tume expressed some hope as well, saying, "We only have to build resilience and improve on adaptation strategies."

threats to food security

Dr Feumba Rodrigue Aimé is concerned not only about the economic losses due to damaged homes, commercial buildings, and hotels but also about the changing landscape of the Gulf of Guinea.

"The cultural heritage established on the beach and even that of all the people living on this coast is also endangered," he said.

Mahale Etoka, 76, has lived all of her life at a coastal village of Bwabe in Kribi. This was her first time to witness a heavy swell of waves reaching higher than 10 metres. 

"Everything is being destroyed," she lamented. 

"One Friday, huge waves came destroying in broad daylight," she added, saying the incident brought back painful memories of her home being damaged by waves in 2013. 

Jean Sabouang, a Kribi resident who relies on fishing to support himself, believes that all relevant parties must shoulder their responsibilities, and strongly advocates for the immediate regulation of sand digging activities in the area.

"We speak of coastal erosion every day, but we see tons of sand dug off from the same beaches [on a daily basis]," Sabouang said.   

Furthermore, inhabitants of Kribi confirm that the price of fresh fish has risen dramatically. A kilogram of fish, which sold at FCFA 4,000 (€ 6.07), currently sells at FCFA 8,500 (€12.90). Some roast fish vendors claim they had long gone out of stock, following the temporal suspension of all fishing activities in the sea. 

This situation is driving them into poverty, the said, especially because only a handful of individuals who can afford to store large quantities of fish are able to sustain their businesses. They have been forced to adapt by allocating more of their budget if they want to continue enjoying fresh fish, while for some, fish has been removed from their menus altogether.

a Region On high Alert

From Kribi to Campo, Douala and Limbe, every stretch of the coastline in Cameroon is presently on high alert. 

"We are bound to relocate," Nicholas Mvondo, told FairPlanet, adding the waves are already hitting hard on his veranda and that cracks are already visible on the side wall of his house. Just 10 metres on the other side, he said, several tilted trees lean precariously against one another. The roots stand exposed as the soil has been washed off.

The waves have reached a point where they wash over a street and pose a threat to National Road Number 7, which connects this rapidly expanding city to the rest of the country.

In response, the government, NGOs, and local councils are leading efforts to mobilise residents of coastal towns to take immediate environmental action, aiming to protect communities and prevent further loss of life and property.

The Kribi local council, for instance, has launched a Sustainable Energy Access and Climate Action Plan that seeks to cut greenhouse emissions by 40 per cent over the next seven years. To accomplish this, the council has started recycling its domestic waste and sensitising the community on the need to protect the coastal ecosystem.

The local council has also initiated capacity-building programmes for people at risk of coastal erosion, flooding and other climate-related hazards. These residents have received training on income-generating activities, including cocoa cultivation and entrepreneurship.

The government-run Institute of Agricultural Research for Development is also expanding its operations in this part of the country. The institute has been conducting agricultural research in the maritime and coastal field and providing maize, beans and cocoa seeds to help inhabitants of the area to diversify their sources of income. 

Speaking shortly after visiting some of the damaged building sites in Kribi, Nouhou Bello,  a senior officer at the local government's Ocean Division, remarked that he and his colleagues observed that people were building their homes too close to the shoreline. 

"We have hence banned every construction which is less than 150 metres from the sea," the administrative official stated. He explained that the authorities have shifted from raising awareness in the area to actively enforcing the regulations against those who do not comply. 

“Swimming in the beach is forbidden until the waves calm down. Anyone who violates these instructions will be arrested," Bello said. 

Adaptation Lessons from elsewhere 

Cameroon's response mirrors efforts seen elsewhere, but the Mission to Study and Manage Oceans plays a vital role. This government initiative, established to address challenges linked to the Atlantic Ocean, has become increasingly active in planning and managing the Kribi coastal area.

The government is actively promoting regeneration by establishing mangrove nurseries for reforestation and development. Currently, around 2.5 million new mangrove plants have been planted, with plans to expand by an additional 1,000 hectares. Communities engaged in this initiative are already experiencing improvements in local temperatures.

Cameroon Wildlife Conservation Society, a local NGO, has planted approximately 60,000 mangroves in Cameroon's Littoral Region. These mangroves, the organisation claims, are now thriving and well-protected, playing a crucial role in reducing carbon emissions in Douala, which is home to over 2,500 industries.

But while these efforts have contributed to managing rising temperatures in Douala, Yaounde, and Kribi, Dr Feumba Rodrigue Aimé suggests that Cameroon can draw lessons from Eastern and Northern African countries, where effective institutional frameworks have yielded more significant results.

Rwanda, for instance, has planted roughly 25 million trees annually since 2021, and while only eight per cent of Kenya is currently covered by forests, a climate framework prompted the government to raise coverage to 10 per cent.  

Dr Tume, on his part, believes more serious measures such as the erection of sea walls, groins and jetties, must take place simultaneously. And although Cameroon has yet to officially consider such options, there are prospects on the horizon considering the growing threat of sea level rise. The successful completion of the Kribi seaport dyke, Dr Tume believes, is a signal that this could be done. 

East Africa has rapidly adopted the concept of climate-smart cities, making it a top priority to construct urban areas that rely entirely on renewable energy for their health, transportation and other social systems. These cities produce fewer greenhouse gases and have a smaller impact on global warming, which is a primary factor driving rising sea levels.

Both Rwanda and Kenya have made decarbonisation, climate risk and disaster management a high priority, and have established projects, businesses and industrial landscapes that align with sustainability values, aiming for a net-zero impact on ecosystems and communities.

Moreover, Rwanda is harnessing its water resources while minimising adverse effects, striving for a 38 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Patricia Espinosa, the Executive Secretary of UN Climate Change, commended their commitment to paving the way for a sustainable future after receiving news of these reforms.

Meanwhile, Cairo, Egypt's capital and largest city, is working to achieve 60 per cent green space and transition to renewable energy sources with the goal of becoming a zero-carbon destination. It has already achieved its 22 per cent target for 2023 and has now initiated a plan to derive 42 per cent of its energy from renewable sources by 2035.

These efforts have led to increased community safety and a reduction in environmental degradation, showcasing the advantages of climate-smart cities.

Though not currently not under consideration, such measures could  be adopted in the Gulf of Guinea as well, according to Dr  Rodrigue Aimé. "Cameroon must urgently learn from good examples," he concluded. "Climate change is an integral part of urban planning actions." 

Image by Tim Oun.

Article written by:
Isaac Genna Forchie
Cameroon Kenya Rwanda Egypt
Embed from Getty Images
Cameroon’s Tourism Ministry claims 60,000 tourists, mainly from Europe, America and Asia visit Kribi every year.
Embed from Getty Images
"We have hence banned every construction which is less than 150 metres from the sea," Nouhou Bello.
Dr Suiven John Paul Tume, an agro-yydro climatologist and environmental geographer at the University of Bamenda.
Dr Suiven John Paul Tume, an agro-yydro climatologist and environmental geographer at the University of Bamenda.
Dr Feumba Rodrigue Aimé, Coordinator of the Climate Change Independent Observatory. “Global warming is at the heart of this.\'
Dr Feumba Rodrigue Aimé, Coordinator of the Climate Change Independent Observatory. “Global warming is at the heart of this."