26-year-old Victor Koutowou sits on the stump of a coconut tree and looks distraughtly at the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean, raging waves lashing at the banks all around him.
Just in front of him is a concrete pillar that was once the centre of a six-room building. It had since been swept away by the waves.
Togo has been battling coastal erosion for decades, but now it’s with a new sense of urgency that the country must fight the scourge.
The wind and waves are chipping away at the coastline, with between five to ten meters of shoreline lost each year. In some areas, up to 25 meters of shoreline is lost to waves and wind.
Koutowou points to a pillar 150 meters from the shore. “Look at that pillar over there. Five years ago, it was a bustling shop. Now, it’s been swept away.”
He says he sleeps each night, fearing for his own life. “There are times the waves lash against my veranda,” he says, pointing to a foundation that is already hanging-just about to give way.
The country has a total of 50 kilometres of coastline on the Gulf of Guinea, but 80 per cent of it has been damaged.
Environmental activist, Fabrice Ekeh who has spent over 15 years observing the phenomenon says “cemeteries are being washed away, houses too. And biodiversity is suffering. Trees and other kinds of plants are disappearing. Everything is gradually being washed away, year after year, and residents are left in a vicious circle of poverty.”
Port Construction Worsens the Phenomenon
While coastal erosion is a natural phenomenon, the Togolese case, and the speed with which it is taking place has other causes, notably the construction of the Lome Port.
According to Tchannibi Bakatimbe, project manager at the Togolese Environmental Department, the port’s construction had disrupted the process of sedimentary accumulation.
This is a natural process in which the beaches continually acquire deposits of sand, making up for the amount lost by erosion. The building of the port changed the direction of the currents and created a huge drift of sand just off the coast.
“The drift prevents sand from being deposited on the beach,” Bakatimbe said.
Lome port is an important source of revenue for Togo and is the only port in West Africa from which vessels can reach several of the region’s capitals in just one day.
Pledge of Future Cooperation over Environment
The port is constantly being expanded. Most recently, at the end of 2014, the port authorities opened a new Lome Container Terminal (LCT), which provides two additional harbour cranes. New handling equipment was added in 2015 to increase the terminal’s efficiency. The LCT has become a gateway to landlocked countries, including Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Northern Nigeria.
Bakatimbe claims the port is taking steps to minimize the environmental impact of any future construction work and this includes cooperating with environmental authorities.
The government has already built some physical defences. Between 2010 and 2014, it erected groynes and riprap to protect the coastline at Aneho (Togo’s former capital) and surrounding areas. Groynes are low walls or barriers built out at sea. Riprap is the name given to large boulders or manufactured concrete objects used to fortify shorelines.
Bakatimbe says the construction of these structures along just 30 meters of the coast has helped to stabilize more than four kilometres of shoreline by increasing sand accumulation. It has even led to the re-creation of a 50-meter beach which will eventually help support vulnerable populations.
Gado Bemah, the founder of the Association for African Science and Technologies for a Sustainable Development (ONG- STADD), an environmental nonprofit organization in Lome, has predicted that Aneho will be submerged in 5 years and Lome in 50 years if no additional protection measures are taken.
The physical structures designed to halt erosion are themselves being destroyed by it. Sand under groynes and riprap in Aneho has been eroded, causing some of the blocks to be swept out to sea.
Residents also contribute to coastal erosion by collecting sand and gravel, which is used to build houses, as a source of income.
The government, in cooperation with the Global Environmental Fund, an international investment firm, is to launch a project which will help them find alternative ways of making a living. The project also intends to raise public awareness of the seriousness of the threat posed by coastal erosion. The Global Environmental Fund is also investing in stabilizing a further 13 kilometres of coastline.
The Gulf of Guinea has a history of man-made coastal erosion which began with the building of the Akossombo Dam on the Volta River in Ghana in 1961. Its construction kept back sediment that should have been deposited along the coast. This is a legacy which began “even before the construction of the [Lome] port,” Bakatimbe said.
Cooperation among coastal states is crucial as the activities of one country can have an impact on the entire shoreline.
The World Bank has tentatively initiated a project involving six West African countries, including Togo, aimed at promoting “integrated coastal management,” reducing the vulnerability of coastal areas and improving the livelihoods of coastal communities.
Separately, the African Development Bank Group (AfDB) approved a $41 million (39 million euros) loan to the governments of Togo and Benin in December 2016 to finance the construction of 28 groynes and replenish sand deposits on exposed beaches. The main goal is to reduce coastal erosion from 20 meters per year to one meter per year.
How Locals are Responding
While the government and its partners are trying to respond to the environmental crisis, affected populations are doing what they can to save their homelands and their properties.
A group of young people in Togo led by Komi Kokouda has initiated a permaculture project that is already demonstrating just how effective it can be in fighting coastal erosion.
It entails building a sustainable form of farming that relies solely on renewable resources that nature itself provides.
Planting coconut trees along the coastline, Komi notes is one of the ways forward, stressing that “a single coconut tree can’t hold back the sea, but if you plant many palms together, then the roots soon interlink and then they have more of a chance against the waves.”
But for that to work, the ground must retain its moisture. Komi and his friends, therefore, add natural materials like animal dung, shrubs and wood shavings to the sand which allows it to retain water and keep the plants strong and healthy.