Coastal Defense Interventions in Liberia Fall Short of Financial Sustainability

a rock wall on the beach
News Public Trust
Monrovia, Liberia
Coastal Defense Interventions in Liberia Fall Short of Financial Sustainability

For the past 40 years, communities along the Atlantic Ocean in Liberia have been experiencing coastal erosion due to climate change. Liberia is located on the Gulf of Guinea coastline, exposing it to the southern Atlantic annual sea storm surges. These surges lead to average tidal rises of over two meters during a brief period in the dry season – a major driver of coastal erosion.

Counties like Grand Bassa, Montserrado, Grand Cape Mount, and Sinoe have seen storm surges cause severe damage to coastal homes and streets. Climate change-induced sea level rise, combined with increasing storms and sea surges, is the leading cause of such erosion.

This can destroy the lives and livelihoods of fishermen and petty traders in those communities. An increasing number of people are being displaced, and vital economic sectors such as fishing, farming, and trade are at risk. A 2010 UNDP report on climate change in Liberia said since 1969, sea erosion has removed at least 250 meters of the coastline at Balawudeh Town in Buchanan, representing an average loss of 6.6 meters per year. The sea continues to advance towards houses and other infrastructure nearby.

Global and regional climate predictions on sea level rise in Liberia state that by 2090, relative to 1980-1999, Liberia will experience a rise of between 0.13m and 0.43m. The Special Report on Emissions Scenarios (SARESA1) also predicts a rise of between 0.18m and 0.56m.

This forecasted sea level rise, combined with increased intensity of storms and potential storm surges, is very likely to accelerate the present catastrophic situation of coastal erosion.

Anna Mingo, 48, was born in KorKorwein Community, a coastal town in Buchanan. She said she and her parents were driven away in the early 2000s by sea erosion that washed away their homes, including structures such as shops, schools, and tree crops.

“I was born almost a mile away from this [particular] place, but due to the encroachment of the sea, we find ourselves here [their current location in KorKorwein]. My parents’ properties got damaged,” she said. It started from the 80s and finally destroyed everything in early 2000.”

A 2012 International Journal of Scientific & Engineering Research study on coastal erosion in one of Liberia’s neighboring countries, Sierra Leone, says coastal erosion in the country is the result of natural and man-made causes.

The president of Natural Resource Development Corporation and former Mines and Energy Minister, Dr. Eugene Shannon, identified de-vegetation of the beaches, cutting down of mangrove trees and construction of structures along the shoreline as some causes of the erosion.

“The vegetation or mangroves are naturally placed on the beaches to slow down the coastal effect, but when we cut down these mangroves and build homes on the coastal front, the sea doesn’t move as it is supposed to, it is blocked. The sea destroys any storming block it faces and moves shoreline. So, it causes coastal devastation or coastal erosion,” Dr. Shannon said.

As a result, he said, nature-based solutions are the best way to mitigate the constant sea erosion. “We need to build-up the sand, build a natural coastal defense by planting trees on the shoreline and gradually the situation will slow down or we build a concrete revetment that will project into the sea about 90 degrees.”

As climate change’s impacts continue to increase along Liberia’s coast despite previous government interventions, a US$2.9 million Coastal Defense Project, completed in 2013 by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Liberian government, is under renewed scrutiny.

Problems arise with coastal defense project's uneven distribution

The Liberian government and UNDP launched a US$ 2.9 million Coastal Defense Project in 2010, titled “Enhancing Resilience of Vulnerable Coastal Areas to Climate Change Risks in Liberia in 2010”. It targeted three counties: Grand Cape Mount, Montserrado, and Grand Bassa.

The project aimed to reduce the vulnerability of local communities and build resilience of socio-economic sectors to withstand the threats of climate change in the three counties.

Johnson Willabo, an assistant minister at the Ministry of Mines and Energy, says the project would build the communities’ resilience by reducing the effect of sea erosion. Since then, the project has also provided new lessons for the ministry when implementing future projects.

“In the first place, there will be no sea erosion again,” Willabo said. “If the revetment [barricade] that we placed there will cause problems to their livelihoods, then we have to create space for their canoes to land – we will build cold storages. Every time we go, we learn lessons, and we improve on them.”

The seawall placed along the shoreline to prevent the effect of the rise of the sea level contains Geo-fabric mats underneath and large rocks above that help with erosion control.

The project has since been completed in Buchanan, Grand Bassa. However, the need to extend the retaining wall still remains, as the original project did not plan to cover the entire coast with the wall.

“The seawall has reduced the sea erosion in areas covered, but some parts of Balawudeh Town and Korkorwein [are] still experiencing sea erosion – in fact, if nothing is done, there will be no Balawudeh Town again,” the chairman of Korkorwein Community, James Toe, stated.

Toe wants the government and its partners to extend the project to currently threatened communities that still need to be protected by the barricade.

In 2008, erosion destroyed houses and properties, leaving 1,000 homeless in Buchanan. Most of them moved to urban areas in nearby fishing communities.

Although the project document stated capacity and alternative livelihood development would be undertaken, the kind of support is not specified. The chairlady of Korkorwein Community, Felecia Garway, confirmed that during the construction of the retaining wall, the government did not provide any grant or loan as a fund for women’s empowerment.

“No school or clinic was built here under the project,” she added. An NGO built a handpump and an eight-room latrine in the community, but Garway says she believes those facilities were built outside of the plan for the coastal project. “In fact, the latrine is non-functional,” she said.

Meanwhile, some parts of the rock wall built in Buchanan have been covered with sand due to constant sea level rise while beach sand mining also remains a major challenge as well. The sand is being mined for commercial purposes by residents of nearby communities.

In 2012, the government of Liberia through the ministry of Mines and Energy issued a statement banning all beach sand mining across the country. According to the statement, beach sanding mining activities beyond 2012 are deemed illegal. Despite these measures, the situation still exists.

In fact, residents of the area are even using the beach for defecation.

Willabo, the Assistant Mines and Energy Minister, disclosed that the government is sourcing additional funding to carry-out maintenance on the damaged portion of the recently built revetment in Buchanan.

a beach and rocks
The damaged portion of the rock wall in Buchanan / Credit: Sampson David.

“We still have some problems in Buchanan because we did not cover the entire coast. So, the effect is now being felt in areas that are not covered by the project,” he said.

The Buchanan project lacks financial and economic sustainability as the government continues to source funding for its maintenance.

“Once the project is built, it is the government’s responsibility to maintain, but due to competing priorities … no serious maintenance has been going on because of the lack of resources,” Minister Willabo asserted.

He added that a minimum amount was placed in the 2022 National Budget for maintenance, but only covered New Kru Town, thus leaving Buchanan project out – although the need for maintenance exists.

Later projects also struggle

In 2018, the government of Liberia and the United Nations Development Program launched phase two of the project worth US$2million, which saw the completion of a stretch of 500 meters of seawall along the shoreline of New Kru Town, the home of over 20,000 people.

Funded by the Global Environment Facility, the project could not cover all the affected areas, and Liberian President George Weah instructed the Finance Ministry to provide the necessary funding to complete the construction of the retaining wall.

Meanwhile, Assistant Minister Willabo noted that the government had constructed an additional 885 meters of retaining wall, beyond the project’s initial target of 500 meters, thus totaling 1,385 meters of seawall built.

“If we didn’t do that, then the process of completing 500 meters and leaving 1,200 meters undone would have left a huge disaster,” he added.

However, the funds provided by the Finance Ministry could not complete the New Kru Town project fully. Assistant Minister said, “The balance of US$ 200,000 is needed to complete the New Kru Town project in full. If funding is available, we can do the balance 20-25 meters within a month”.

While appreciating the government and its partners for the project so far, one New Kru Town resident wants it completed to avoid future destruction of homes and other properties in the area. Beatrice Chea said, “I am appealing to the president – he already started it. If it remains like this, the sea erosion will break homes again. So, we are appealing to the president to come to our aid because it is not complete yet.”

Another New Kru Town resident, Pablo Robinson, added, “We appreciate the government for the effort done so far, but there is a need to complete the project, because the portion left has the propensity to destroy the effort of the government.”

Willabo said the seawall is expected to last for 25 years taking into consideration maintenance measures. He added that if there is a serious storm surge due to climate change, it will upset the equilibrium of the existing seawall and the process of protecting the shoreline, thereby creating serious problems within the 25 years guarantee.

The minister also explained that the design of the project in Buchanan is slightly different from New Kru Town, which is the cause of the maintenance issues.

“They did not place a toe protection during the construction of the Buchanan project, so the displacement of the rocks is taking place faster,” Willabo said. Toe protection provides insurance against scouring and the undermining of a structure. “In New Kru Town, we put toe protection there, so the displacement of the rocks will be slower. It will help to avert scouring. We excavated the sand about 1.5meter to place toe protection before putting the geo-mat and later the large rocks above.”

Yet the reality, said the president of Natural Resource Development Corporation and former Mines and Energy Minister, Dr. Eugene Shannon, is that the sea walls are not forever: “I was part of the project in Buchanan as minister at the time. Seawall is a temporary revetment – it is not forever. You can arrest the situation by placing rocks parallel to the sea, but it doesn’t take long because the rocks will be covered by sand due to littoral drift – it may last for 3 -5 years and maintenance starts,” he said.

Willabo said the project implemented in Buchanan and New Kru Town did not consider nature-based-solutions, adding “we needed to do it right away – the sea was taking away school and other structures.”

The government terms the seawall built in the New Kru Town area as a state-of-the-art coastal defense project constructed by Liberian engineers – sustainable and replicable anywhere on grounds that it contains durable components such as geo-fabric mats, toe protection, and solid rocks.

But Dr. Shannon said these projects are temporary interventions and not 100% financially sustainable on grounds that the government does not have the needed funding for its maintenance annually.

The government constructed drainages and 89 new housing units along the Po-po Beach Community in New Kru Town, containing modern latrines to avoid open defecation. The houses are connected to septic tanks which are maintained on a routine basis by the community dwellers following a series of trainings in the area.

The two-room houses were built by the government outside of the project to build resilience, reduce vulnerability and improve the living conditions of the affected community.

“We do not have a specific waste management plan – what we did was to hire local people from the community so that they can own the project, because we don’t want people defecating on the seawall in New Kru Town,” he added.

Additional projects are beginning elsewhere, such as in Robert Sports, Grand Cape Mount County. The Assistant Minister disclosed that the Ministry of Mines and Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency are currently working out plans to construct a sea and river defense mechanism, comprising concrete and rock wall, to avert flooding and coastal erosion – although the timeframe of the project has not been confirmed.

“It is both flooding and sea erosion. It is caused by the overflowing of Lake Piso. When the rain falls heavily and there is a storm surge, it pushes more of the water into the lake and it swells and floods the communities,” Willabo said.

New projects begin based on lessons learned

In September of this year, hundreds of Kru Town Communities residents in Robert Sports were made homeless by the sea erosion.

“Sea erosion is still ongoing here. Most of the affected residents sought shelter at the City Hall – some went to Fanti Town and other nearby communities,” Robert Sports City Mayor, Edwin Kohar said.

Mayor Kohar shared that 10 acres of land was provided by authorities of Grand Capemount County to relocate residents of the affected communities, but it did not materialize due to their refusal.

“The people complained that there is no sea around the 10 acres of land, so they couldn’t move there. They told us [county authorities] that only fishing they are making their earn meets from.”

Charles Morgan, the co-founder of ‘For Beach Liberia’, an environmental conservation organization, says coastal erosion causes hundreds of Liberians to be internally displaced annually and the need for everlasting solutions cannot be overemphasized.

Morgan’s organization is collaborating with the Liberia National Tourism Association (LINTA) to plant one million coconut trees in sea erosion-prone communities across the country.

“My family was greatly affected in New Kru Town years back – their properties got damaged. We need to plant trees to stop others from going through this, because it is devastating. We need to act now to stop the sea encroachment and its effect,” he said. Morgan added “Coconut trees serve as a coastal defense system that protects coastal communities from sea erosion. So, we are using nature-based solutions to bring relief to our people,” Morgan said.

The government and partners recently launched a new coastal defense project in Sinoe County worth US$10 million. The project will contain seawall and nature-based solutions.

“Nature based is part of the design – in some areas we will do nature based – planting trees, replenishing mangroves and in some areas, we will build revetment,” minister Willabo added.

The minister said the government has plans to add nature-based solutions to the previous coastal defense projects in Buchannan and New Kru Town during its maintenance. This would also require additional funding that has not yet been made available.

In March 2021, the Green Climate Fund (GCF) approved US$25.6 million under the Monrovia Metropolitan Climate Resilience Project to remedy the continuous coastal problem faced by Liberia and build the resilience of residents of affected communities. GCF will provide US$17.2 million while US$8.3million will come from the Liberian government and UNDP.

The project aims to enhance the resiliency of vulnerable coastal communities to climate-induced sea-level rise by constructing coastal defense structures, developing a coastal zone management plan and supporting livelihood diversification in West Point and its environs. Over 1,050 meters of revetment will be built.

West Point is one of the hard-hit coastal communities in the sub-burg of Monrovia. In the past, more than 700 homes were affected by sea erosion, thus leaving more than 6,000 people homeless. The project will begin early next year with 1.3 million people estimated to benefit.

Unlike Buchanan, the projects in New Kru Town, West Point and Sinoe County have long-term livelihood components which include a loan scheme and building of cold storages. “We learned lessons and improved on them as we went along the way,” Willabo said. “If you build a revetment, you have to take care of the people’s livelihood or find an alternative livelihood – if not, then, incentivize their livelihood to build their resilience.”

He added “It is difficult to prevent the locals from building on the beaches and waterways – it is not part of our statutory mandate to do so –the ministry of public works zoning department is clothed with that authority – we are working with them, but it is difficult.”

The government is yet to receive complaints from any of its neighboring countries including Guinea, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast.

“We have not received any complaints from our neighbors – we are far away from them. These projects cannot negatively impact them. We have trained engineers that are doing everything possible to bring relief,” Willabo said.

Liberian scientist, Dr. Shannon said there is a possibility for projects done in Liberia to affect neighboring countries if they do not have durable structures to withstand storm surges due to littoral drift.

“Around the Ivory Coast area, if the structures there are not properly built or planted. The sea is moving literally along the coastal line, so, where there is no structure, definitely that whole area will be destroyed. So, there is a possibility.”

Speaking at COP28 in the United Arab Emirates December 2, 2023, Liberian President George Weah called on major greenhouse gas emitting countries to develop new initiatives for emission reduction and not only fulfill, but also significantly increase, funding for United Nations climate financing initiatives – including ones like the coastal defense projects in Liberia.

The youth chairman of KorKorwein Community, Jefferson Welte, highlighted the urgency: “How can we be satisfied when Balawudeh Town and nearby coastal communities are being affected? More properties got destroyed – so, other people left – if nothing is done in a short while, we may also leave.”

This story was produced with support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network. It was first published by News Public Trust on December 6, 2023.

Banner image: A rock wall on the beach on Liberia's coast / Credit: Sampson David.

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