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drums on the beach
Adissém, Togo

Coastal Erosion in the Gulf of Guinea: Recommended Approaches for an Effective Response

West Africa’s coastal areas represent about 42% of the GDP of the region according to the World Bank. They are home to nearly a third of the population, and they are extremely vulnerable to the consequences of climate change.

Located in the Gulf of Guinea, Togo is also experiencing damage from the advancing Atlantic Ocean.

large wave crashing
Water spray at the shock of the waves on the structure of Gbodjomé / Credit: Ange Banouwin.

Some of the coastlines of Baguida in Togo are closed to traffic.  According to the inhabitants and the security of a local hotel, it is forbidden to circulate along the surrounding beach. Nozzles and sandbags are placed by locals to try to slow the advancing sea, but they do little to relieve the hotel, whose back terrace is adjacent to the ocean.

In Togo, from the village of Gbodjomé to Agbodrafo in the Maritime Region, coastal erosion has increased in recent years.  Houses, schools and even cemeteries are washed away. In June 2020, 300 families who had become coastal erosion victims called on the government and its partners to find an urgent solution to save the remaining habitats and the little heritage they still have, but there has been no action yet.

WACA's decentralized country initiative fails in Adissém, Togo

In Agbodrafo, at the corner of the main street leading to the coast, the WACA sign is in plain view, indicating the Benin-Togo interstate initiative. Residents claim that affected residents have not yet been compensated by WACA, and a WACA spokesperson declined to comment on these claims.

The coastal village of Adissém is located a few kilometers from Lomé.  Some of the structures used in the construction of the "barrel wells" are stored there. About 100 meters away, a structure, built as part of WACA's emergency intervention, is visible.

The structure, which is meant to protect the coastline, does not fully meet the expectations of residents. Their boats are parked on the bank, making it difficult for the fishermen to cross them to go to sea.

"When they first started, we were excited. But as we speak, that is no longer the case. The waves are still coming to us in the homes. But we learned that soon, they will put rocks in Agbodrafo to here," said Edoh Agbékpozo, one of the residents, in French.

"It has relieved us a little, but it is as if the height [of the structure] is not enough because the waves continue to reach us. Maybe they will have to increase the height ... At the beginning of the works, we thought we would be satisfied, but … the sea is very violent, it passes the structures and carries away the sand," says Mawoulé Kagni, a fisherman, in French.

"Historically, when the sea causes damage, it is the rocks that are sought to counter it. If it is not destroyed, [the drum structures are] tipped over by the waves. They came back to fix it, [but] despite that, if you go along the coast, you will see that many are tilted ...", says Abran Cocouvi, a resident, in French.

More than 1,000 villagers with precarious houses will soon be displaced. According to them, WACA will provide them with compensation costs to help absorb the financial burden of resettling. But for now, there is not much hope for the future, especially if fishing is no longer an option.

"This is the job we have learned. We have no other activities. We haven't even thought about what other activity to pursue," says Kagni.

To limit the damage created by coastal erosion in Togo, a technique created by the Togolese engineer, Déo Eklu-Nathey, was implemented. The first test was carried out in Gbodjomé and consisted of the construction of a series of wells of 1.30m in diameter with cinder blocks, which trapped the sand and protected the portions of the coast in front of it.

Déo Eklu-Nathey / Credit: Ange Banouwin.

“As for the system itself, it is a solid screen implanted facing the sea which retains the sediments brought by the waves while letting the liquid element leave,” explains Eklu-Nathey in French.

But over time it turned out that the mortar between the cinder blocks gave way to the tide and weakened the structure, so the technique evolved, and the cinder blocks were replaced by poured concrete shafts.

"The waves have effectively destroyed certain parts of the structure on some sites. 72 percent of the erected screens are still standing, but 28 percent have been destroyed by the violence of the waves,” says Eklu-Natey. “This is due to the fact that there were no studies, no R+A (Research and Action), no 3RF (Rapid Repair Reserve Fund) etc. If [WACA] had been set up with the intention of solving these issues, there wouldn’t have been breakage."

According to a study from the University of Lomé, the installation of these structures has certainly created a new configuration of the coast. However, unlike groins and breakwaters that seriously disrupt the coastline, this system involves the trapping of sediments by not creating a strong erosion downstream drift.

"The results show that this system has certainly protected the portions of coastline for which it was installed, but its sustainability is subject to discussion. Indeed, on some stretches of coastline that had served as a pilot project, the structures are beginning to unravel, hence the need to question the effectiveness of this protection system with nozzles or wells of drums," concludes Pessièzoum Adjoussi, Senior Lecturer, Department of Geography of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences (FSHS), University of Lomé, in the recent publication.

The risks of intervention without international cooperation

On the Beninese coast, from the Port of Cotonou, “[The beach] disappears and returns, depending on the seasons," says Sohou. "… There is damage, because we suffer the [negative] impacts of the groins that were built by Togo’s government at most two kilometers from the Beninese border. The rate of advance is between 15 and 20 meters per year.”

At this rate, if nothing is done, Benin risks losing a swath of land, warns Sohou.

"We dream of [seeing WACA’S transnational protection in Benin and Togo] really materialize,” he said, explaining that if the strip of land is lost, the coastline of Benin will be 100 km long, instead of 150 km. “As a result, Togo's line will expand from the current 50 km to 73 or 75 km," he added.

On the eastern side of Benin, the Institut de Recherches Halieutiques et Océanologiques du Bénin (IRHOB) has already moved its observation posts several times. After the last spur, there is a "terrible advance" of the sea on the land that goes up to 30m per year, according to evaluations by IRHOB.

Located 15 kilometers east of Agbodrafo, Fernand and Jacob, two young Togolese, proudly pose on the piles of rocks protecting the coast in Aného, where a quay is built in front of the town hall. "We had to put the stones, otherwise our town hall could have collapsed. Even the bridge next to it was also collapsing and was redeveloped," says Jacob.

Experts note that in the Gulf of Guinea, one of the main challenges in the fight against coastal erosion is the mobilization of financial resources to protect the coast.

In Togo, the African Development Bank had proposed a protection scheme consisting of 28 groins from Katanga to Gbodjomé. The proposed groins are relatively short, allowing for a local fix while minimizing the risks of erosion in the areas not yet "protected." According to the data, the lengths of groins are between 80 and 120 m. However, due to a lack of funds, this project has not yet been implemented.

In Sohou’s opinion, national borders can do nothing against coastal erosion and the efforts of one country alone may simply worsen it elsewhere.

In addition to the execution of the works, the other important aspect of coastal protection is the follow-up. From his observations about the sand engine method in the Netherlands, "They put the sand in, the sea eats it up for a while and then they come and put it back in," Sohou says, illustrating how continued efforts are necessary.

“There is also a lack of funding for scientific research around coastal protection,” says Bonou. The funds required to fight against erosion and flooding are far greater than the funding that each country can access individually.

"It is a problem that must be solved in a regional way. A country alone cannot protect its coast without negatively impacting another country, which is why the works must be carried out simultaneously," he says.

WACA's prospects versus expectations

Residents remain impatient to see the work of WACA materialize to save what remains of their property, whose homes and plantings continue to be swallowed by the sea. Djara, from WACA-Benin, said the project must wait for favorable tides in order to continue.

"We have completed the preparation phase,” he explained. “[Now,] we begin the season of low tides, which is favorable for the realization of work. The execution schedule provides for the start of work in early October.”

Although it may appear to residents that the WACA project has not yet begun, Djara explains that prior to implementation, preparation must be complete. Since January, he added, the preparation phase has been underway.

"In August 2023, we will have finished work," he says. Afterward, the authorities will review and evaluate the project before closing it.

In addition, there is the impact of Covid-19 and the Russian-Ukrainian war. "Covid-19 slowed down the studies, you know, mobility was limited ... When there is an increase in the cost of the barrel, there is an increase in the cost of the lubricant," explains Djara.

The WACA project is scheduled to end in December 2023, and its achievements will be transferred to the ministries in charge of the environment in each country, which will be responsible for follow-up. As for the various works to be carried out, Djara says, "After 15 years, it would be desirable to carry out maintenance.”

Until then, residents are left still awaiting progress, living at the mercy of the ocean.

This story was produced with support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in French and English in La Météo on October 13, 2022. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

This is part two of a two-part series. To read part one, click here

Banner image: 'Well drums' in Gbodjomé / Credit: Ange Banouwin.