27 Apr 2017 - On Africa’s West Coast, the ocean is everything. For thousands of years, its bounty has provided food for families, employment for fisher folk, remarkable sunsets that attract tourists, ports that carry goods and build economic resilience, and coastal barriers that buffer the earth, cleanse the ocean and create a more sustainable ecosystem. The ocean is hearth and home. But changes in the climate are resulting in rising sea levels, degraded fish stocks, coastal degradation, and more. Making this both an ocean of fortune and an ocean of peril.
The west coast of Africa represents a major source of revenues for its communities. In some countries, like Senegal, 66 percent of the population live in coastal areas. In addition, due to high population growth and the decreased productivity of agricultural lands in coastal zones – caused more particularly by an increased salinization of the soils – coastal communities are under ever-greater pressure and increasingly dependent on ocean resources for their survival.
This results in intensive unsustainable fishing close to the coastal zones where fish reproduce, as well as sand displacement resulting from the ever-growing fleets of fishing boats that land on the shore. Mangrove and other natural buffers are cut down for firewood, and the construction sector mines the sand to build new houses for a growing population.
In addition to the unsustainable human-induced pressures depleting these resources (especially fish populations), climate change is putting an additional stress on livelihoods in coastal communities.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is witnessing unprecedented rates of erosion on its 40-km sliver of coast, where 15 metres of coastline has already been lost over the past 10 years.
In certain areas, large colonial homes are slipping into the sea. Erosion here happens due to the low topography of the coastal area, the gritty nature of the rock, but most importantly the increased impact of sea level rise. This erosion means infrastructure and valuable assets can be wiped out, and salt water can intrude on agricultural lands, cutting economic productivity for this least developed country.
On my last mission to DRC, a local villager from the coastal town of Nsiamfumu, Muanda, underlined the true impact rising seas and coastal degradation are having on the community. “Our ancestors brought us in coastal areas to exploit the resources the ocean offers, but with the increasing impacts of climate change and the threats it poses on our families and our livelihoods, we are forced to retreat inland and leave our ancestor’s lands.” These modern-day climate refuges will strain national resources and face new perils on their inland journey.
Among the various projects UNDP supports to address the challenges posed by climate change in Africa’s coastal areas, the Strengthening Resilience of Muanda’s communities from coastal erosion in the Democratic Republic of Congo project is providing a comprehensive and sustainable approach to support vulnerable communities in their efforts to adapt to climate change. Financed through the Global Environment Facility’s Least Developed Countries Fund (GEF-LDCF) with US$5.3 million in grant funding, the project will be a centrepiece in the nation’s efforts to protect its coast. By collecting climate data and translating it into usable and understandable information, the project will enable decision-makers to plan and budget for climate change and provide communities with the necessary climate information and early warnings they need to prepare in case of extreme weather.
Local communities will be directly supported by investments in coastal defence, including the introduction of pilot adaptation measures to stabilize the cliffs at Muanda and secure fisherman docking and landing operations at Nsiamfumu. In addition, the project will create alternative income-generating activities for women and youth organizations to reduce pressure on coastal resources and uplift the economic status of these at-risk groups.
In the end, the ocean always abides. Whether it is an ocean of fortune, that protects and nurtures the vulnerable people of DRC, or an ocean of peril, where rising tides force migration, perpetuate poverty traps and diminish stability-building efforts, remains to be seen. But with sustained support, and active engagement with at-risk coastal communities, the chances of building an ocean of fortune remain high.