Totope, Ghana – Ask anyone in this fishing village along Ghana’s eastern coast where they grew up, and they’ll likely point south, towards the blue waves of the Gulf of Guinea.
The ocean has encroached on areas that were once land, dry enough for the villagers of Totope to grow crops, build homes and raise families.
It’s all gone now, buried by crushing waves and shifting sands that have forced the village of a few thousand to move onto swampy land reclaimed with an unreliable mix of sand and trash.
The people here don’t think it will last.
“The future of Totope looks very, very bleak,” the village’s chief Theophilus Agbakla said.
Grain by grain, West Africa’s coasts are eroding away, the dry land sucked under the water by a destructive mix of natural erosion and human meddling.
Sediment flows in Ghana and elsewhere have been disrupted by the damming of rivers. Climate change has led to harsher storms and higher waters. Meanwhile, resurgent economies in many West African countries are bringing development closer and closer to the shore.
From Senegal to Nigeria, scientists say eroding beaches will soon pose an unavoidable threat to booming coastal populations.
A glimpse of that future can be seen in Totope. Situated with a lagoon to the north and the Atlantic Ocean to the south, the village of less than three thousand is cursed by its geography.
Salt water seeps through the makeshift landfill that Totope rests on. Villagers walk on soggy ground, dodging creeks that run between houses, and they hang their possessions from ceiling rafters to keep them above their often-wet floors.
“Have you seen how the sea broke the town?” asked Michael Akutu, a fisherman who like most people here grew up on now submerged real estate. “Now, it’s all gone.”
Rapid coastal erosion
As the ocean pushes the shoreline back, the beach has risen up to swallow whatever gets in its way.
There’s an old Pentecostal church, still standing with sand up to its windows.
One resilient soul dug a trench and bought himself a little more time from the wall of sand that’s advancing on his house.
Agbakla says the village has land it wants to move to on the other side of the lagoon, somewhere where the water won’t get them. But no one has the money to pay for the land.
“You get fed up and you have to leave,” Agbakla said. “This the fate of Totope.”
Year by year, West Africa’s coast is retreating. By how much depends, said Kwasi Appeaning Addo, a lecturer in coastal processes at the University of Ghana.
Around Ghana’s capital Accra, the coast is eroding at one-and-a-half metres per-year, while in the eastern coast around Totope it’s three meters per-year, Addo said.
But when the weather is rough, Agbakla said the waves near the village can claim as much as ten meters a year.
Like its potency, the causes of coastal erosion vary, but Mathieu Ducrocq, a coastal scientist who coordinated a study on erosion throughout West Africa for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, said most of the causes tie back to human activity.
“The main problems come from human activities and bad coastal management,” he said.
Ducrocq credits climate change with driving sea levels higher and making destructive storms bigger.
Ports and jetties along the coast can also disrupt the flow of sediment that nourishes beaches, Ducrocq said.
Guinea-Bissau has already lost one of its finest beaches to erosion, and Gambia’s capital Banjul had to borrow millions to regenerate a beach crucial for keeping the capital connected to the country’s roads, he said.
The problem wouldn't have been much if the rate of sea level rise had been very, very low.
Beaches around Totope rely on sediment from the Volta River, Addo said, but that flow was disrupted by the construction of the Akosombo dam in 1965, which provides most of the electricity for Ghana.
“Now that we have blocked it over decades…we are experiencing the consequences,” Addo said. “The problem wouldn’t have been much if the rate of sea level rise had been very, very low.”
The rising seas are occurring amidst a rise of another kind: impressive economic growth in the economies of West African states like Nigeria, Ghana and Ivory Coast, all of which have major cities along their coastlines.
The optimistic economic news has developers in Ghana convinced that people will fork over thousands of dollars to rent luxury condos in a trio of under-construction beachfront high-rises.
A spit of landfill off the coast of Nigeria’s mega-city Lagos will soon sit the site of Eko Atlantic, an opulent planned city for those who can afford it.
Addo says projects like these will be the first to take the hit from eroding coasts.
“In the very near future… the government will have to be called upon to look for money to protect that side,” Addo said. “I think these huge developments that are going on along the coast are something that we should discourage.”
As the sea took Totope’s houses one by one, the villagers retreated north to the banks of the Songor Lagoon, a UNESCO biosphere reserve and nesting ground for sea turtles.
Eventually, they ended up in the lagoon itself, layering plastic bags and sand together to make a semblance of dry ground.
The floors of the houses laid in the reclaimed lagoon are constantly wet with water salty enough to undo glue on shoes, Agbakla said, and the ground has to be packed down and refreshed every day.
The landfill is considered illegal, but warnings from the police and condemnation from conservationists don’t change Totope’s reality: there is nowhere else to go.
“At times you disobey the laws of the country because of certain circumstances,” Agbakla said.
The government has invested in a series of groins stretching down the coast that are meant to trap sediment and regenerate the beaches.
Addo said measures like these are double-edged; effective in repairing beaches upstream, but starving others downstream.
Agbakla is sceptical. He said the government told him it will be three years before the coastal defence project reaches Totope.
“It means that within three years, [the sea] will take 12 to 18 meters, which will take some of the village away again,” he said.
When that happens, the villagers will do what they’ve always done: lay down another layer of sand and plastic, and retreat.