In West Africa’s Gulf of Guinea each year, the Atlantic Ocean unleashes its fury on Benin and Togo, two neighboring coastal countries whose joint coastline stretches 180 kilometers.
Erosion can reach up to 12 to 30m per year, leaving swaths of land threatened with disappearance. Homes and vegetation are lost, and livelihoods are paralyzed, plunging communities into disarray.
The perceived lack of progress within the West Africa Coastal Areas Program (WACA), a cross-border project designed to protect victims of coastal erosion, has left coastal communities in Benin and Togo vulnerable, with their lives and livelihoods at the mercy of the ocean.
Fishermen of Apoutagbo in Benin face high tides
In June 2022, in Apoutagbo, Grand-Popo, Benin, Kodjo Cocoroco did not go out to sea like usual. He can no longer face the intensity of the tide.
“Today, at my age, 50 years old, we have to wake up at 2am, and swim to get into the boat. It is hard to swim. Our boats are about 400 meters from the shore,” he says in French. Previously, he noted, it could be done with a paddle.
Now, fishermen must swim to their boats before embarking, and swim back to the shoreline from their boats, carrying their catch of the day.
“The sea causes a lot of damage,” says Benoît Tossou-Djadja, the beach’s fisher representative, in French. “Especially in the months of August and September — it destroys the houses along the beach and also breaks our dugouts.”
When the tide is high, fishers must fish in the lagoon, an arm of the Mono River, even though fishing in the open sea is more profitable. However, the sea is also more dangerous.
“About a month and a half ago, our boats were overturned by the sea. We can count at least seven,” says Cocoroco, who says he lost a motorized boat worth 1,300,000 CFA francs (~US$2,000) in the past.
“In 2021, the sea destroyed at least four canoes here. A single canoe is worth about 1,500,000 CFA francs. We were able to recover the engines and repair them. Once overturned, there is sand that gets inside, and parts that are broken,” explains Tossou-Djadja.
Around midday, women wait to buy fresh catch from the returning fishers, which sustains their livelihoods. One of them, Essénam Messanti, describes the difficulties women face as a result of the high tides.
“When the sea is raging, we women have a lot of difficulties, because we can’t find fish to buy. No one goes to sea, and … all the expenses are ours. If we have savings, we have to use that. If not, we have no other activities,” she says in French. “Sometimes,” she explains, “it can be a month, or two weeks [without fish].”
“If the tide is high, it is hard for the fishermen. Some go, but others do not have the strength to go,” adds Florence Kétévi, a fisherman’s wife. “About two years ago, the sea passed through here until it went into the river. Machines are lost, dugouts too. We called for help, but we saw no one.”
According to Cocoroco, a large part of his community was forced out of Benin and into Cameroon, Congo and Gabon to fish.
“Today, I have at least four pirogues and six motorized boats. If I am able to fish, and we can easily go out to sea, I can have at least 50,000 CFA francs (~US$74.28) per day,” he says. Unfortunately, that is not the case anymore.
Coastal erosion in the Gulf of Guinea
Erosion and high tides are interconnected issues that are threatening Benin’s coastline. Large swells from the South Atlantic contribute to eroding material from Benin’s bluffs, beaches and banks. This erosion gives way to higher tides, which in turn create further damage.
According to the Journal of Coastal Research, West Africa’s coastline is naturally in a geographically vulnerable position, and though some of the coastal erosion can be attributed to the impact of swell patterns in the South Atlantic, it has been further accentuated by human development.
“Erosion is due to the geological shape of the coasts, secondly to wind speeds and the height of the tides,” says Moussa Bio Djara, a coastal geomorphology scientist and the Coastal Technical Specialist with WACA’s Benin program.
The coastline between Benin and Togo has been subject to severe erosion since 1986, when coastal erosion became prevalent, and aggravated by the Economic and Monetary Union of West Africa (UEMOA)-funded groins that were constructed in 2012 on the Togo coast. These groins have had a severe impact on the west coast of Benin at Hillacondji, Agoué, Louis-Condji, Aïguinnou and Grand-Popo.
“The West African coast, say in the Gulf of Guinea, has critical periods. During the month of June, we begin to experience a high tide, which is subject to storms that can happen at any time. This critical period goes from June to September … when there is a rise in sea level, and storms can overflow or create floods … this happens every year,” says Dr. Zacharie Sohou in French. Sohou is an oceanographer, a biologist and the Director of the Institute of Research Halieutics and Oceanology of Benin (IRHOB), within the Beninese Center of Scientific Research and Innovation.
“There are extreme situations where the waves exceed 2m in height, but typically, they are … waves that vary between 1.5m and 2m. These extreme situations happen in the critical period … when the waves are much more intense and create coastal erosion,” explains Dr. Frederic Bonou, a researcher associated with the IRHOB who works on issues related to coastal erosion, specializing in the use of video cameras and satellite tools for the analysis of coastal features.
To determine the tide’s danger, experts use a color system. Waves from 1 to 1.5m are in the ‘green’ zone, indicating they will cause minor damage. Waves from 1.5 to 1.8m are in the ‘orange’ zone, indicating they may cause damage. For waves over 1.8 meters, which is the ‘red’ zone, there is a significant danger of erosion. According to experts, extreme waves can last up to six hours before returning to normal.
WACA’s cross-border intervention in Benin and Togo
WACA was designed by the World Bank as a response to rapid coastal erosion in West Africa. It has two prongs: Inter-state collaboration at the sub-regional level and decentralized work at the national level, and covers six West African countries, including Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Mauritania, São Tomé and Príncipe, Senegal and Togo.
In their regional response to coastal erosion, Benin and Togo have initiated a transboundary coastal protection project with the support of WACA, through a joint financing mechanism.
This cross-border coastal protection project is the first of its kind between the two countries. Using information collected and cross-checked with experts from both countries, WACA will implement two methods of coastal protection, depending on the impact of erosion – breakwaters and sand engines. Breakwaters involve the construction of short groins, while sand engines are a type of beach nourishment that requires replenishment less often.
The work will extend from the Beninese-Togolese border to Agbodrafo over 18 km in Togo and from the border to Grand-Popo in Benin over 23 km, a total of 41 km of coastline.
According to official WACA sources, 14 groins are planned for the Togo coastline. These include the construction of seven groins at Agbodrafo and the rehabilitation of old groins (UEMOA groins repaired in 2012) at Aného. In addition, a longitudinal groin and a 500-meter sand dike will be installed in Aného to counter the sea level rise. Two recreational and tourist facilities are also planned, consisting of parking lots and bicycle paths in Agbodrafo and Sanvé-Condji. WACA also plans to fill the dead arm of the lagoon which begins in Sanvé Condji, Togo, and ends in Hillacondji, Benin.
In Benin, WACA plans to install eight groins and a sand engine containing 6.4 million cubic meters of sediment from the country’s border with Togo to Louis-Condji. They will also install a 4 km sediment deposit by dredging the seabed and fill the abandoned lagoon arms east of the mouth at Grand-Popo. Sand for these projects will come from seabed dredging, which has been found to cause adverse impacts on marine ecosystems, but no environmental impact studies are available in the region. Just like the Togo project, WACA will also construct bicycle paths and parking lots at Agoué and Hillacondji.
Breakwaters work by deflecting incoming waves before they reach the shoreline. But, these structures have a tendency to deflect waves to other exposed areas of the coast, causing further erosion. Benin, which is located just downstream of Togo, will suffer the impacts of Togo’s breakwater installations. Erecting a sand engine in Benin will help diminish the impact of Togo’s breakwaters by distributing the sand along the coast over many years, preventing the need for repetitive beach nourishment.
“We put the sand engine in Benin because it is the area located downstream that will suffer the negative impact of all the works that we have done in Togo and Benin. That is why it is necessary to mitigate this impact there by putting a sand engine,” explains Djara in French.
According to Djara, the natural dynamics of the coastline will cause the sediment deposit made by the sand engine to erode gradually over time, until erosion is no longer possible.
WACA also plans to evacuate and compensate people living within the borders of the project, yet, as of mid-August 2022, though WACA has identified the people who will be displaced and signed agreements, residents have not received their payments.
WACA has declined to comment on why residents have not yet received compensation but agreed to discuss several challenges faced by the project.
“It is very difficult to implement cross-border work, because we have two legislations, we have two administrations, two customs security controls,” Djara explained. “At the Benin-Togo border, there are always blockages despite the interventions of the authorities. As long as these difficulties are not lifted, it hinders a little the smooth functioning of the implementation.”
“The other difficulty is that most of the technical feasibility studies needed to carry out these major works are already done … if it is necessary to use the duration of the project to carry out the studies, we have pressure and we come to realize the limit of the project,” he added.
Two execution contracts for the long-term protection of the Benin-Togo cross-border coastline were signed on December 6, 2021, marking the official start of the project. The company BOSKALIS INTERNATIONAL BV has been selected to carry out the coastal protection works for an amount of 41,646,182,783 CFA francs. The amount of 1.382.502.130 F CFA is made available to the group of studies of the control office INROS-LACKNER to ensure the supervision.
Long delays frustrate residents
According to data published in the Beninese media outlet A Cotonou, 16% of open building space available to the municipality of Grand-Popo in Benin could soon be underwater, turning the villages of Avlo, Agonnekanmè and Alongo into islands.
Even now, the Place du 10 Janvier in Benin, a UNESCO heritage site, is threatened with disappearance. Residents believe protection is necessary to save this historical site.
“Place du 10 Janvier risks disappearance, but we are confident that with the works which were made by the Ministry of the Framework of Life and Sustainable Development recently on the side of the lagoon, that it will calm down a little the problem on that side. We are waiting to be able to really rejoice,” said Sohou.
Further on, a few kilometers away is the “Bouche du Roy,” which designates the mouth of the Mono River in southern Benin. According to Sohou, the mouth of the Bouche du Roy moves from east to west, which causes flooding to occur.
In 2016, it was constituted as the Bouche du Roy Community Biodiversity Conservation Area (ACCB-Bouche du Roy), an integral part of the Mono Delta Transboundary Biosphere Reserve, which covers an area of 9,678 hectares.
According to WACA official sources, in its decentralized approach in Benin, it has supported emergency protection works to stabilize more than 700 meters of the southern bank of the Mono River as well as the Bouche du Roy, allowing for a regular flow of river water to the ocean during heavy rains. This stabilization helps to prevent the river from flooding, as it can more easily drain into the ocean.
In Togo, WACA has financed emergency coastal protection works on a 1,580-meter segment between Gbodjomé and Agbodrafo. It also supports the development and implementation of income-generating activities for coastal communities in both countries.
However, expectations are getting longer and longer for the populations who are waiting for the transnational, sustained work to start, which continues to be delayed.
“The WACA Project is a sub-regional project that does not depend only on Benin — it is a project piloted by two countries, Togo and Benin,” said the Beninese Minister of Living Environment and Sustainable Development, José Didier Tonato. “We are two neighboring countries, brothers. This is why we accepted when the UEMOA and the World Bank proposed to go into a regional program. Today, the most difficult part is behind us, the studies are completed, the calls for tender have been issued, the monitoring missions have been recruited and I am eager to see the coastal protection finally take place.”
If WACA is indeed in sight to protect the coast of Benin and Togo, the only tangible results that communities see are vehicles circulating the town hall, and frustration is building.
“If they are sure of what will work, they have only to do it,” says Tino Agouenon, a fishing boat owner, in French. “We saw that at the level of the Place du Janvier, [two years ago] they put sand on the side of the river, but zero [results]”. “On the river side they did not succeed … so how will they succeed on the sea side?” he questions with skepticism.
This story was produced with the support of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.