The photo above was taken during a visit to Abidjan Cote d’Ivoire in 2019 by Okafor-Yarwood.

“The Future Is Now” In Coastal Communities In West Africa

Authors: Kwesi Randolph Johnson, Ifesinachi Okafor-Yarwood

With the COP26 wrapping up in Glasgow, global leaders have been criticized for their lack of commitment to preventing the continuous rise of sea levels of the world’s oceans. The language used to describe climate change, and its impact is so imbued with the future tense that one can excuse those living in the present for having a “je m’en fous” (I don’t care) attitude towards acting to stop the ‘impending climate crisis’. For instance, the 2018 IPCC report noted that fisheries production in West Africa is expected to decline by 21%, resulting in a nearly 50% decline in fisheries-related employment by 2050.

For their part, despite recognizing the urgent need to cut greenhouse gas emissions and limiting global warming to 1.5 °C, world leaders have only managed to include a pledge to reduce global carbon dioxide emissions by 45% by 2030 in the current draft of their negotiation documents. The long-term nature of this ambition, as it is not set in stone, fails to recognize that there are people already living the realities of the impact of climate change today. For some, today is already tomorrow!

The reality is that the climate crisis is already upon us, with coastal communities and populations throughout West Africa experiencing the scourge of a changing climate. In terms of the economic cost, in 2017 alone, Benin Republic, Côte d'Ivoire, Senegal and Togo were significantly affected by coastal erosion, flooding and pollution, whose financial cost was calculated as $3.8 billion or 5.3% of their GDP each year. This phenomenon is also responsible for over 13,000 deaths each year in these countries, especially from sea-surge induced flooding.

The socio-cultural impact is also worth noting. As sea levels rise and severe weather events increase in frequency due to climate change, the personal safety, food and economic security of coastal West African residents are continuously at risk, with poor and marginalized populations proving most vulnerable.

A cross-section of residents who were directly affected by the coastal erosion were met and discussions ensued. They spoke courageously about the future and showed despair about how they have been left to rebuild their way back from these disasters with very little or no support by the state or international entities.

In Sierra-Leone, recent climatic events such as flooding and erosion caused by the rising sea level is wiping out communities, along with sites of historic and cultural heritage from the earth. This is resulting in a forced relocation of people, loss of lives, and lost livelihoods. Even worse, the lives of those who remain continue to be threatened by adverse weather conditions.

Hardly ever do those who are not directly involved in fisheries or related industries associate coastal erosion with food and livelihood security. In Ghana, fisheries are both a way of life and pillar of economic and food security. Fish provide around 60% of animal protein in the Ghanaian diet, making the country the most reliant upon fish for nutrition in Africa. With the erosion of fish-landing beaches, a whole cultural heritage is disappearing; the security of present and future generations are also in serious jeopardy.

And it isn’t just the present and future that is going to be affected – even historical monuments have succumbed to the ravaging sea. In the historical town of Keta on the eastern shores of Ghana, elderly residents say 90% of the community is in the sea. The Danish slave-trading post known as Fort Prizenstein has just about 5% of its former structural majesty remaining—eaten up avariciously by the rising Gulf of Guinea sea level. 

During recent storm surges that hit the eastern part of Ghana, skeletons were exhumed by floods that inundated the communities of Salakope, Amutinu and Adina; relatives hardly knowing which remains belonged to what family had to organize a hurried mass re-burial in a common grave. In the western part of Ghana, the problem has not been as severe as in the east due to the generally rocky nature of the beaches. But cemeteries have disappeared into the sea in communities near Dixcove and Sanzule. To the African, these are serious spiritual issues.

In the nation’s capital city of Accra, the seat of government which since independence in 1957 has been sited in the pre-colonial Danish slave bastion known as ‘Christianborg Castle’ was relocated due to the all-conquering sea. Other heritage edifices are also under constant threat (e.g. the Kwame Nkrumah Mausoleum, the resting place of the man reputed to be “the Greatest African ever” by Pan-Africanists) and the popular tourist destination of Accra Arts Center which is close by faces the threat of being wiped out courtesy of climate-change-induced coastal erosion.


Peer learning on climate change induced receding coastal lands facilitated by Kwesi Johnson

Socio-economically, Ghana like many other West African states is set to suffer a very difficult-to-quantify impact if appropriate remedies are not taken in adequate measures. There is now only a tiny strip of land between the sea and the Keta Lagoon (the biggest in the country); and once the sea is left “unchecked” to breach the lagoon and the adjoining wetlands, there will be a free sail for it some 40 kilometers inland. Not only homes but farmlands and other economic activities like salt production will be affected.

Thousands of residents in the eastern coastal areas of Ghana were rendered homeless after tidal waves swept through their homes on the dawn of Sunday, the 7th of November 2021. This is by no means the first time such disaster has visited and flooded the coastal fishing communities in that area; it has however been the severest by far in decades, meaning the impact of climate change is getting worse.

The coastal-fishing areas of Ghana like many coastal areas of the world are suffering from effects of natural phenomena (e.g., climate change, global warming, sea level rises and flooding of low-lying coastal areas, and man-made activities like sand and stone mining in coastal areas). Sand and stone mining in the coastal fishing areas has been on the rise in these areas which are already low-lying (1.5 meters above sea level at the highest point), has been pointed out as one of the man-made contributing factors to the flooding. Sand mining on the beach apart from being illegal, makes the area very prone to coastal erosion and disaster. Though an illegality, it is propelled by lack of employment opportunities for the youth in the area, borne out of dwindling fishery livelihoods, and increasingly saline and infertile farming lands.

The majority of the people in the eastern coastal areas of Ghana depend on fishery livelihoods, and non-availability of arable lands for viable diversification has severely affected the people socially and economically. Because of this dire socio-economic situation, it is difficult for many inhabitants to cope on their own without the support of the state, extended family and friends who are sojourning out of the area.
The narrative above exemplifies the reality that for the vast majority of the 31% of West Africans residing on its coasts, the evidently disruptive impact of climate change in coastal communities across West Africa is an actually-existent one, not just one to be promoted as a concern for future generations. This begs the question, therefore, of what parameters are used to measure the urgency of the impact of climate change? Further, at what point would the solution be explored in such a way that the most vulnerable, yet least contributing communities to greenhouse gas emissions—the entire African continent has contributed only just 3% of historical emissions—are given protection and assistance to combat the present effects of  climate change?

Even worse, the language about the need to mitigate the impact of climate change is global, as evidenced by the COP26. However, when it comes to efforts to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change, countries are very individualistic; their approach is often to export their unsustainable practices elsewhere, with little regard for how their actions affect the populations and environments in those places. Pollution by multinational companies continues: they seek to divert offshore, harvest precious mineral extraction such as cobalt for electric cars, and pursue fisheries exploitation. The unsustainability of these practices evidences the unfair and individualistic nature of current mitigation and adaptation efforts.

President Nana Akufo-Addo of Ghana in his speech at the COP26 event said “…Even though we in Africa, are the least of the contributors to [climate change], responsible for less than four percent (4%) of the global volume of carbon emissions, we suffer the most because our agrarian and resource-driven economies are peculiarly susceptible to the effects of climate change, and our capacity to withstand its shocks is weak”. And he is right.

Mitigating the impact of, and adapting to climate change requires that the most vulnerable countries and populations are supported by the countries that have contributed the most to this global catastrophe. The futuristic description of climate impacts creates a divide. Whereby most contributors can assume that the impact of climate change is not yet in sight, in fact, for a majority, and those who are the lowest contributors, the crisis is upon us. We must act now for the future is already here!

How to cite this page:

Johnson K.R., Okafor-Yarwood, I. (2021). “The Future Is Now” In Coastal Communities In West Africa. [online] Shackletontrust.org. Available at: https://www.shackletontrust.org/the-future-is-now. https://doi.org/10.54823/6u5f9w0r