Taking on Coastal Erosion in the Less-Developed World

May 7, 2015Winter 2015

Traditional fisheries, improvised communities bear brunt of the impacts

It’s a familiar beach scene: a child digs her feet into the wet sand at the water’s edge, bracing herself to create a barrier between her sandcastle and the breaking waves. Adults look on from their blankets and low-slung chairs, know- ing all along how this will end. Inevitably, the child is no match for the unceasing waves, and they devour her creation.

That scenario, magnified many times, plays itself out every day on coastlines around the globe, where accelerating erosion relentlessly scrubs away at the creations of both people and nature. Rising sea levels, burgeoning populations, and rapid coastal development have created conditions that threaten everything from sandcastles to skyscrapers, ecosystems to economies. And those threats resonate on a large scale: the United Nations Atlas of the Oceans reports that 40 percent of the world’s population lives within 60 miles of a coastline. That’s about2.8 billion people.

08 Mar 2010, Ghana --- Climate Change - an elderly woman who is participating in efforts to clear a choked waterway --- Image by © Nyani Quarmyne/Aurora Photos/Corbis

08 Mar 2010, Ghana — Climate Change – an elderly woman who is participating in efforts to clear a choked waterway — Image by © Nyani Quarmyne/Aurora Photos/Corbis

Coastal environments and the hazards that threaten them are, by their nature, perpetually dynamic and shifting, not fixed on any map. Addressing coastal hazards requires methods that are easily adaptable to changing circumstances, and that view problems and solutions from multiple perspectives. That’s the approach the Coastal Resources Center (CRC) at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography takes in its work of fostering resilient coastal communities here in Rhode Island and in nations half a world away.

CRC’s founding work focused on Rhode Island, and the center applies the coastal management expertise developed in the state to resilience and climate change work in the less-developed regions of the world. In these nations, poverty, lack of resources, and scanty education are often the norm, and the notion of self- government largely remains foreign.

“We’re starting from scratch there,” Don Robadue, a senior coastal manager at CRC, said of the center’s work in less-developed nations. “But we see relevance and transferability. The jobs are the same.”

Despite such stark differences between Rhode Island and say, sub-Saharan Africa where CRC has a large presence, coastal threats and the work to combat them share similarities. Coastal communities in Rhode Island and abroad have suffered erosion and seen natural buffers—including dunes, wetlands, and forests—removed, paved over, or otherwise destroyed. And pressure from businesses, industries, and governments to build economies and create jobs regardless of the expense to fragile ecosystems is universal.

In the face of these challenges, CRC works with local people on climate change-related policies, laws, planning, and practices in a collaborative way that engages interested parties from all spheres of the community.

A boy stands by a house in Ghana that is being claimed by the sea. Photo © Nyani Quarmyne/Aurora Photos/Corbis

A boy stands by a house in Ghana that is being claimed by the sea.
Photo © Nyani Quarmyne/Aurora Photos/Corbis

In a project that recently wrapped up in Tanzania, CRCc and its local partners focused on adaptation actions that employed local skills rather than large-scale, expensive efforts that require outside expertise. They conducted vulnerability assessments in coastal villages where tourism is an important industry and followed these up with achievable adaptation plans focused on beach erosion. A village climate change committee worked with local hotels to plant stretches of native grasses along beachfronts. Other coastal villages decided to focus on improving their food security by testing new, climate-resilient agricultural practices.

In Ghana, the challenges are many. Floodplains, where shacks house the poorest of the poor, are more frequently and severely inundated from sea level rise than other homes, putting hundreds of lives in jeopardy. There also is intense pressure to protect shoreline property that has become valuable for its proximity to the nation’s burgeoning offshore oil and gas industry, which has been a major contributor to the doubling of the population in five years. Having discovered that breakwaters, seawalls, and other barriers often fail and are not affordable, communities are grappling with other solutions. Such actions include protecting- ing mangrove habitats along the shoreline that form a natural barrier and stemming the longtime practice of “sand winning”—the removal of sand from beaches for construction use.

The CRC-led project worked with leaders in the Ahanta West District who approved by-laws for wetlands conservation in four crucial areas, creating a model for other districts in Ghana’s Western Region. That region’s Shama District adopted a shoreline management plan that maps physical resources and assesses vulnerability. It is the first of its kind in the nation. These efforts have mobilized communities to take action. District-level “toolkits” for coastal management created during the project have given communities the knowledge and the confidence to push back against developers and to map areas for designated use or protection against erosion and environmental degradation. Leaders in all six districts are talking about ways to integrate their efforts across the region to achieve greater results.

Because of what the Ahanta West District accomplished, Ghana’s national government is now requiring all districts to adopt shoreline management plans, said Kofi Agbogah, director of Hen Mpoano (Our Coast)—a Ghanaian non-governmental organization that grew out of the project.

Hen Mpoano has relied on personal relationships with traditional village leaders, media outlets, and even a radio soap opera to inform, entertain, and persuade people to act—whether in a shaky floodplain shack or the posh office of the president.

“People were glued to their radios on Tuesday nights,” Agbogah said of the program that wove illegal fishing, shoreline sanitation, and coastal issues into a storyline rich with tales of love, bribery, and corruption.

The reality of climate change does not have to be taught to even the poorest people abroad with the least amount of formal education. “We ask them, ‘Fifty years ago, where was the sea?’ They say: ‘Three hun- dred meters out, today it is here.’” Agbogah said.

“So they know it is moving and it is going to move. They are living it day by day.”

Karen Kent, a senior coastal manager at CRC and project manager for The Gambia project, agreed: “People there (in Africa) are much closer to it. They might say, ‘this tree used to bloom in April and we’d know that it was time to plant our rice, now it blooms earlier.’”

Coastlines are on the frontlines of climate change impacts, where rising oceans collide with people and society. And the cost of those impacts can tally up quickly in loss of life, degradation of ecosystems, and harm to livelihoods that can ripple outward to larger economies.

In Rhode Island, loss of wetlands to sea level rise hurts recreational and commercial fishing and leaves communities more vulnerable to the effects of coastal storms. In Ghana, the exploding population and energy industry create intensified demand for shoreline development in increasingly riskier locations, potentially putting lives in danger and threaten- ing livelihoods, such as fisheries.

Mapping and protecting wetlands and floodplains that absorb storm surges in Rhode Island or creating and enhancing natural buffers to strengthen shorelines in Tanzania are coastal resilience measures that can help guard against the impacts of climate change. And these efforts can be replicated in and expanded to other vulnerable communities.

What works in one place might need to be tailored to a local community’s needs and abilities or implemented differently to succeed. But clearly, what won’t work is standing still and hoping the waves won’t erase all that people cherish along the coast.

— By Carol McCarthy

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