Threat of rising seas looms over coastal Africa

ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Africans living on the coast, who face the loss of their cities, homes and livelihoods to rising seas, are less interested in haggling over greenhouse gas emissions than getting aid to move to higher ground.

People walk near buildings damaged by erosion on a beach at Port Bouet in Abidjan December 17, 2009. About 120 U.N. world leaders are aiming to try to end deadlock at a U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen that is meant to agree a new deal on Friday for fighting global warming. REUTERS/Luc Gnago

Speaking as talks on a global climate deal in Copenhagen ran into disagreements over how to share the burden of emissions cuts, some residents of low-lying coastal Africa said they had more pressing concerns.

“We want the authorities of the world powers to come and rescue the poor people from the sea,” said Diakite Abdullaye, 46, looking over his shoulder at the ruins of a house he said had already been destroyed by the advancing ocean.

“If they can’t stop the sea rising, then help us move somewhere else,” said the resident of Ivory Coast’s biggest city.

Rising sea levels caused by the melting of polar ice caps are seen by climate experts as largely unavoidable for centuries to come, even if substantial cuts in carbon dioxide emissions are made.

“Like a slowly boiling kettle, the oceanic system has very long response time to changing conditions and the seas will go on slowly rising for centuries even if all greenhouse gas emissions stopped tomorrow,” wrote Mark Lynas, a British climate expert and author who advises the government of the Maldives.

The U.N.’s climate change panel in 2007 predicted global warming would raise sea levels by between 18 and 59 cm (7 and 24 inches) this century. Many climate scientists believe the estimate is conservative, and a rise of a meter or more is likely.

Either way, it could spell disaster for much of coastal Africa, especially densely populated tropical West Africa whose economic centers sprawl along the coast.

The United Nations estimates Africa has 320 coastal cities and about 56 million people living in “low lying” coastal zones, those less than 10 meters above mean sea level.


Some expects say sea levels have risen by about 20 cm since the start of the Industrial Revolution in northern Europe.

That is no surprise to residents of Abidjan’s Port Bouet, where abandoned concrete shacks litter the beach. Some have lost their front walls. Scaffolding is all that remains of others.

“Twenty years ago the sea was far away from here,” said Samassa Awa, 39, an unemployed nurse whose wooden shack has been flooded by the Atlantic many times. “You see all these destroyed houses? Many people fled but we decided to stay.”

Poor planning and the haphazard construction of homes on reclaimed land subject to erosion has compounded the problem.

In Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital, millions may have to move. The city is home to 15 million people spread over creeks and lagoons. The Lagos state government has been battling to reinforce the long sand spits that protect the mouth of the main lagoon from the Atlantic.

Gilbert Pandy, a resident of the Congolese capital Brazzaville, said advancing seas had washed away a village cemetery. “We are exposed to a disaster ... Sadly, no one cares,” he said.

Africa’s island paradises such as the Seychelles could be among the first to suffer.

Rolph Payet, an adviser to the government who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 with former U.S. Vice-President Al Gore for his work on climate change, told Reuters half of the Seychelles’ islands were barely two meters above sea level.

“All of our infrastructure, telecommunications, fuel, ports, airports, are located on the coast,” he said, adding that tourist resorts in outlying islands risked being submerged.

“The most frustrating thing is that we can do something. If an asteroid hits the planet, fine, we will all be doomed, but we are in a situation where we can actually solve the problem.”

Additional reporting by Richard Lough in Antananarivo and Christian Tsoumou in Brazzaville; editing by Andrew Dobbie