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Coastal erosion threatening to wipe out parts of Cotonou

View from an abandoned Portuguese house on the beach of Grand Popo, Benin.

Rising sea levels have destroyed hundreds of homes, hotels, roads and harvests, and threaten to engulf large areas of Cotonou, Benin’s capital.

A government-commissioned study about a year ago recommended urgent action to hold back the rising tides, and save the city’s ports, airport, and coastal communities, but political infighting has blocked funding.

Residents of the city, with a population of about three million people, say little has changed - except the advancing sea.

Accountant Finagnon Dossa said storms in March 2007 caused over US$3,000 of damage to his property, 500 metres from the coast in the east Cotonou district of Donaten.

His retired fisherman neighbour, Jacques, has lived by the sea for 20 years: “There is only one explanation. It is coastal erosion. It is a problem all over the world. We want to leave,” he said.

However, both Jacques and Dossa said they did not have the money to find other lodgings inland.

Vacation homes and government buildings dot Benin’s 125-km coastline, but most of the 100,000 people in east Cotonou - the most vulnerable to sea damage from coastal erosion - can ill-afford the advancing sea.

Coastal erosion in the Gulf of Guinea, including Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, Benin and Nigeria, has been linked to climate change, and in turn to rising sea levels, flooding, and waterborne diseases. (For a recent IRIN report on the disappearance of West Africa’s coastline, click here)

Threat to industry, tourism, fishing

Benin’s Urban Planning Ministry estimates the sea may rise by up to 59m, in a worst- case scenario, by the year 2100.

A 2007 study by the UK-based non-profit International Institute for Environment and Economic Development (IIED) found coastal erosion could wipe out Benin’s eastern districts of Donaten, Tokplegbe, Finagnon, Akpakpa-Dodomey and JAK, if nothing is done to stop the sea’s advance.

IIED mapped out roads, drainage, pavement and coconut plantations that have begun to disappear. Researchers said coastal erosion could kill off Benin’s industrial, fishing and tourism sectors, and wipe out buildings, ports, and the airport, as well as other infrastructural facilities.

Pumping of sand banned

Satellite image of Cotonou

Cotonou, which sits on alluvial sand at most four metres deep, drives most of Benin’s economy, in addition to being a regional trade hub. Its port brings in most of the country’s customs revenue, and its Danktopa market earns over US$750 million annually, according to the IIED.

Until recently, it was legal for companies in Benin to pump sand from the beach for construction projects, further shrinking the coast.

The government banned this practice in September 2007, but locals say they still see companies hauling away sand.

Gilbert Medje, president of the Benin non-profit organisation, Front United Against Coastal Erosion, said the city could not spare the sand, or the time.

From his upstairs apartment in Akpakpa District, he looks out anxiously at the sea. He said his home used to be 141 metres from the ocean but over the past five years the sea had closed in by 30 metres.

Threat not only to Benin

Remote sensing and maps of eastern Cotonou, 1963-2000, show the shoreline has receded over 400 metres in the area east of the port of Cotonou

According to Medje’s organisation, coastal erosion has in recent years wiped out 460 fields, destroyed 47 homes, and threatens over 1,000 properties in Cotonou.

Benin’s former minister of finance, Stanislas Pognon, told IRIN Cotonou is important not only for Benin, but also for West Africa. “The new international Cotonou-Provo [Nigeria] highway is at risk [of being damaged by coastal erosion]. That is an important regional link that would affect our relations with Nigeria. According to experts [including French firm SOGREAH-Laboratoire DEFT], Akpakpa could be wiped off the map by 2025, and other neighbourhoods cut off from the rest of Benin. This would be detrimental to the fertile Oueme valley.”

With rising global food prices, government officials are counting on Oueme valley, central Benin, to supply more food for the cash-strapped country. According to Pognon, coastal erosion would wipe out roads, making communications with this major local food source more difficult.

Photo: Moi of Ra/Flickr
Sandy coast road, Ouidah, Benin

Millions in aid blocked

Environmental researchers with the Netherlands-based Royal Haskonning firm recommended last September that the government build groynes (large barriers perpendicular to the sea to prevent sand from shifting), invest more in coastal development, forbid sand pumping, and resettle at-risk coastal communities.

Donors, including the Islamic Development Bank and Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, have pledged over US$70 million to build rock barriers, starting with a 7km stretch along the high-risk eastern Cotonou shoreline.

But Benin political infighting has stalled construction. Some lawmakers were withholding their approval until their earlier demands for municipal electoral reforms were met. President Boni Yayi broke the impasse in July with a presidential decree, but construction has not yet begun.

Even if the groynes are built, the IIED has said this will only push the erosion problem further east to Nigeria. The UN Environmental Programme has called for a regional groyne covering the entire Gulf of Guinea coastline.

For Benin fisherman Kofi Ayao, the problem is closer to home: “The sea was far from us two years ago. But now, here it is. We are scared. If we do not find a solution soon, we may simply drown in our sleep one day.”


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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