Yelibuya: Why is this town in Sierra Leone sinking?

Life in Yelibuya is becoming increasingly difficult. Just as one house is rebuilt, water damage destroys another.

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    The soggy beach of Yelibuya, a town which is submerged in water and becoming uninhabitable [Mara Kardas-Nelson/Al Jazeera]
    The soggy beach of Yelibuya, a town which is submerged in water and becoming uninhabitable [Mara Kardas-Nelson/Al Jazeera]

    Yelibuya Island, Sierra Leone - Yelibuya, a small town in northwest Sierra Leone, is precariously perched on a sandy, waterlogged stretch of land that juts out where one of the country's largest rivers, the Great Scarcies - also called the Kolente, yawns into the Atlantic Ocean.

    Little more than a few straggly mangroves grows here.

    Fresh food and water are imported, and everything from the town's singular motorcycle to children's clothes are covered in sticky sand.

    But Yelibuya is bustling. 

    About 5,000 people live in the town and surrounding area.

    It sits between the coastal cities of Freetown, Sierra Leone's capital, and Conakry, the capital of Guinea, making it an important last stop on a long and historic trade route.

    As you can see, there is no method for protection. And it gets worse every year. We only seek God's protection.

    Abdulai Bangura, elderly Yelibuya resident

    A majority of the country's fish and rice is harvested along the river.

    With poor road networks, traders brave choppy waters on small canoes to buy Yelibuya's fish in exchange for cassava leaf, groundnut, clothes, and building materials.

    But life in the town is increasingly impossible; the island is going underwater.

    Mangrove deforestation, coastal degradation and rising sea levels have led to dozens of homes being flooded each year. Residents make new ones, often on stilts, to lift them above the slush. 

    While there's no official government data on how much the water is rising, elders in the community estimate that the ocean has encroached inland at least 300 metres over the last 30 years. 

    A soggy main street in Yelibuya [Mara Kardas-Nelson/Al Jazeera]

    According to some estimates, Yelibuya will be completely submerged within two decades.

    "As you can see, there is no method for protection," says Abdulai Bangura, one of the town's elders. "And it gets worse every year. We only seek God's protection."

    Mohammed Salie Sesay has lived in Yelibuya for 20 years. He's lost his home twice, most recently in July. Each time a home is demolished, he builds a new one on drier land with money he makes from daily fishing.

    "I would leave, but my business is here, my wife is here, my kids are here. We're fully dependent on the island," he says.

    Mohammed Salie stands in front of a new structure, his third home on the island [Mara Karas-Nelson/Al Jazeera]

    Others have one foot in, the other out. 

    Alpha Kamara moved to Yelibuya after the 11-year-long civil war and started a family. 

    He considers the town his home but has moved to Freetown because of the flooding. Still, he spends half his time in Yelibuya, bringing with him fresh provisions from the mainland and returning with an abundance of cheap, desirable fish to sell in the capital. 

    Yelibuya's relies on imports.

    Mohammed Lamin Kamara, a young man who sells fresh water from a neighbouring town at Yelibuya's market, says: "I've built houses out of this business. It's the main way I've made money. I've married because of this."  

    Because of climate change, Sierra Leone is expected to witness increased flooding and landslides, such as the Freetown disaster in 2017 that killed more than 1,000 people.

    According to the United Nations Development Agency, West Africa is highly vulnerable to climate change, second only to some Pacific Island countries such as the Maldives.

    The agency notes that Sierra Leone, despite only contributing 0.02 percent of global carbon emissions annually, will "severely bear the brunt of the impacts of climate change".

    The country has already experienced a nearly 1 degree Celsius temperature rise since the 1960s and is expected to experience another 1 to 2.5 degree increase by 2060.

    This Yelibuya family built their house on elevated bricks to keep the water from entering [Mara Kardas-Nelson/Al Jazeera]

    Yelibuya's residents are trying to adapt.

    Two of the town's most important structures, the clinic and the chief's house, used to sit on the ocean's edge. They've been moved further inland, towards the small mangrove forest. 

    Despite being built on heavy cinderblocks however, the clinic is regularly flooded and the chief's house looks out onto a sandy bank that is perpetually filled with water with the encroaching tide. 

    The mangrove patch offers the only barrier between the town and the rising water. 

    But because of wood harvesting, the patch is getting smaller. 

    In a place with no electricity, no alternative natural fuel, and a constant need for rebuilding, mangrove wood is being used for current problems, rather than protecting against future challenges. 

    Yet life goes on, with some recognising the economic opportunity of life on the island.

    A bag of rice sells for 110,000 leone ($14) in Sierra Leone, and 325,000 leone ($40) in Conakry, so Sierra Leonean traders are choosing to live where they can trade upwards rather than settling in a less precarious, but less lucrative, location in the country's relatively dry interior.

    "This is a very important economic area, a very important military area," explains Kelly Marah, the deputy in command for a navy outpost on the island.

    He oversees a small fleet that chases illegal foreign fishing boats, a significant threat to Sierra Leone's fishing industry.

    Dried fish for sale in Yelibuya. Fish from here is sold to communities across Sierra Leone and Guinea [Mara Kardas-Nelson/Al Jazeera]

    Kandeh Yumkella, an MP who represents communities along the Scarcies, is trying to give Yelibuya a political voice.

    A former UN under-secretary-general and presidential hopeful in the March 2018 elections, he proposes climate justice and private sector solutions. 

    "We who pollute the least and make the least greenhouse gases will be most vulnerable," Yumkella says.

    Sierra Leone is a "carbon sink", meaning the country absorbs more carbon than it emits, he says, adding that Yelibuya would benefit from global funding initiatives aimed at supporting climate-change victims.

    "We have a real case where we need a systematic relocation of people who are vulnerable to climate change. Where we get money, and how we do that, can demonstrate to the global community how to do this."

    Climate funds could be used to build schools and a clinic in nearby Mahayla to encourage people to leave the sinking town, he suggests.

    A ribbon of water runs down one of Yelibuya’s main streets [Mara Kardas-Nelson/Al Jazeera]

    But he also wants climate funds to spur development. 

    "Aid must bring capacity, global knowledge systems, and build infrastructure and institutions, so that people can reach their entrepreneurial potential," he says. "This is about creating markets and competitive infrastructure. This is about making money." 

    He has plans for new jetties and fish manufacturing plants that he says will help Great Scarcies communities package and ultimately export their commodities. 

    When Al Jazeera visited Yelibuya in July, Yumkella was on the island with a Sierra Leonean-American businessman interested in commercial fishing. 

    "We're not asking for handouts," Yumkella says. "This place has potential,".

    For now, though, Yelibuya exists in in a liminal state.

    It is fully dependent on water, and is being overtaken by it.

    Additional reporting by Sherry Bangura and Alhaji Kelvin Kanu.

    The chief’s house sits at the edge of Yelibuya, furthest from the rising water. Still, the ground in front of it remains soggy. It’s the only house in town with light, as local taxes have been used to buy solar panels [Mara Kardas-Nelson/Al Jazeera]

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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