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West Africa Explores Ways to Mitigate Climate Change's Effects

Senegalese fishermen talk with environmental groups about the changes they've seen in fishing stocks
Senegalese fishermen talk with environmental groups about the changes they've seen in fishing stocks
Julia Ritchey

From eroding coastline to depleted fish stocks, the effects of climate change are being felt along West Africa's coast and governments and environmental groups are coming together to talk about what can be done to mitigate its impact.  

The ocean breaking on southern Senegal's coastline does not look much different from any other beach. But a closer a look at the Palmarin peninsula, reveals a different story, uprooted palm trees mark eroded coastlines and vestiges of buildings mark where a village was washed away two decades ago.

An island visible from the tip of Palmarin used to be connected to the peninsula, but rising waters and a tidal wave in 1987 separated the two with the gap getting wider and deeper with each year, according to local residents.

A master's student working at the World Wildlife Fund in Senegal, Annika O'Dea, says Palmarin's coast serves as just one example of how climate change has affected the ecosystems of West Africa.

“This ecosystem is more important than many because it is one of the most productive marine ecosystems in the world, because of the upwelling of the Canary currents," said O'Dea. "And because it is an interconnected ecosystem, it really requires international cooperation.”  

Seven countries along West Africa's coast, including Senegal, Mauritania, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone and Cape Verde, gathered for a USAID-funded conference this month, the first of three scheduled, to discuss and compare climate-change concerns in the region.  

A WWF coordinator in Gambia, Ibrahima Mat Dia, explained on a field trip for participants about one village in Palmarin called Kad Diakhanor that will eventually have to move due to encroaching waters.

"This village has to be relocated somewhere else, but for the community, there are not enough facilities over there, they do no want to move," said Dia.

Sierra Leone Environmental Protection Agency Director Kolleh Bangura says he sees similar situations in his country.

“I also look at Sierra Leone and Senegal having very similar problems," said Bangura. "Part of the problem, are trans-boundary problems, which you have to sort of approach on a regional basis.  What is happening on the coastline is not entirely the making of the Senegal.”

Bangura says many environmental issues in Sierra Leone are exacerbated by problems leftover from the country's 11-year civil war, with lawlessness one of the biggest challenges.  He says people use up natural resources for mining or logging without any idea of how it degrades the land.

“People grab the land and you really have use force to remove them there sometimes," he said. "So lawlessness is a very big issue and it has resulted from the war.  Mainly because some of the youth today were soldiers 10 years ago, as child soldiers, and all they knew was violence.  When they grow up without any education, these are people who are very difficult to negotiate with.  They do not know anything about the environment, so the literacy is one big thing.”

In West Africa, one of the biggest examples of climate change's cause and effect has been overfishing.  As agricultural land further inland has dried up and the soil salinized by irrigation, more people have moved to the coasts of these countries to try to make a living, putting enormous strain on the beaches and fishing stocks.

Virginia Lee, a professor at the University of Rhode Island who works on coastal issues with the WWF here, says the depleted fish stocks threaten the local populations who rely on them.

"Fish are a food security issue, more clearly in West Africa than in some places, the United States for instance," said Lee. "Fish is a protein supply, primary animal protein supply.  So when the fisheries are declining here, due to over fishing both by local people and by the international industrial fleets, that really affects the security of the people, the health and vitality of the people.”

In the nearby fishing port of Joal, local fish mongers and fisherman shared anecdotes of how fishing stocks had changed during the past few decades.

One fisherman says they used to be able to trap tons of fish close to the shore, now they have to go further and further away.

Another fisherman said in 1965, there were only five to 10 boats off Joal's coast, but now there are hundreds of them casting thousands of nets.  Many of the fishermen say they have adapted to the depleting fisheries by diversifying and becoming farmers and herders on the side.

The director of the WWF in Senegal, Arona Soumare, who has worked with the NGO for eight years, says he thinks there has been in a subtle shift in opinion in West Africa.

"I think it is yes and no," said Soumare. "I see yes in terms of people having related more to this issue.  A few years ago, when we talked about the environment to locals, they thought, okay, these are people coming from developed countries who just want to tell them what to do. Now people can start seeing how it is impacting their life, and it is happening sometimes in their backyard.”

Soumare says ecological arguments are not enough to convince people to change their behavior, he thinks West Africans first have to see it terms of economic development as well as their own personal survival.

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