Accessibility links

Breaking News

Ivory Coast Resort Town Feels Effects of Global Climate Change

As experts from 190 nations continue to hold talks in Bali, Indonesia on how to curb climate change after the Kyoto Protocol expires, experts say developing countries are likely to be the hardest hit from its effects. Africa is among the most vulnerable regions to the phenomenon, which may produce more droughts, floods and rising sea levels. From the Ivorian coastal resort of Grand Bassam, Lisa Bryant takes a look at how one African country - Ivory Coast - is facing global warming.

Grand Bassam is just a 45-minute drive from Abidjan, a sleepy colonial-era resort town abutting the Atlantic Ocean. The waves crash in here with stunning force. Even during the country's civil war, it was the place Ivorians and expatriates headed to for a weekend of sun and beach.

But there is less and less beach as the years go by. Seaside hotels are erecting erosion barriers to stop the ocean's relentless march to their doors. Some local residents say rainy seasons and floods have been more intense in recent years. All this worries Sylvain Ngaissan, spokesman for the mayor of Grand Bassam, who took a visitor on a tour of the town's beachside resorts.

Nguessain points to the erosion barriers knocked about by the waves.

"Just a few years ago, the sea was a lot further away than it is now," he says. "The erosion is advancing and threatening the homes and the restaurants that border the beach."

Just what is causing that erosion is a matter of speculation here. Katrine Tra, a Swiss, who manages the local Warf Hotel with her Ivorian husband, believes it is a natural phenomenon.

"Grand Bassam has been like this forever," she says. "It rains a lot - and when it does the sea wins. But come here during the dry season and the beach is back."

But old timer Frederic Able, a former mayor of Grand Bassam has another theory.

Able says there has been a change of climate in the region since he was a boy. Usually there is a bit of sunshine in August and early September, between the rains. Not any more, he says - and the locals are aware of the change even if the foreigners are not.

Experts say Grand Bassama's location - on the ocean and on the mouth of a river - makes it more vulnerable to floods, and that some of the erosion is natural. Some of it is also caused by small underwater earthquakes. But Ahossane Kadio, head of climate change at the Ivorian environment ministry, believes global warming is exaggerating the phenomenon. And his prognosis for Grand Bassam is grim.

"Grand Bassam is in the process of being flooded," he says. "Twenty, 30 years ago Grand Bassam was higher than ocean level. But the ocean has already covered some parts of Grand Bassam. The reason is due to climate change."

If nothing is done, Kadio predicts, Grand Bassam - and Abidjan, the country's economic capital - could be flooded over several decades from now.

Kadio is hardly the only expert to warn that climate change may prove disastrous for coastal areas like Grand Bassam and Abidjan.

A newly published study by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development predicts the number of people threatened by coastal flooding from climate change could more than triple, from 40 to 150 million people, by 2070. The financial impact would be even steeper - from $3 trillion today to $35 trillion in another half century.

The study focused on cities in particular, and found those in Asia would be among the worst affected. But some three million people in the key African port city of Abidjan will also face the ravages of coastal flooding - as would seaside towns like Grand Bassam.

One of the report's authors Celine Herweijer says richer countries are already establishing mitigation strategies. Not so many poorer ones.

"Unfortunately, in some of the developing countries, the protection levels are not as high," she said. "That is not the case throughout,but what this really means is that climate change means that the protection in the cities is going to have to be improved as well."

And, Herweijer says, developed countries need to help developing nations protect themselves.

Coastal flooding is not the only climate-change threat facing Ivory Coast. Rains came late this year in the northern part of the country, causing even drought-resistant crops to wither and die. Meanwhile, the southern part was hit by intense rains and flooding in August and September, like other West African countries. While it is difficult to establish an irrefutable link, scientists say extreme weather patterns are characteristic of climate change. And experts say deforestation in Ivory Coast has only worsened the problem.

Indeed, some studies suggest that Africa, in particular, may be one of the regions worst hit by global warming in the future. Encroaching deserts will cut the continent's agricultural production and Africans will be among most vulnerable to higher food prices.

But experts say that so far very little assistance has gone to poor countries to fight climate change. And in Ivory Coast, expert Kadio says the environment is far from the top of the government's priority list.

"Frankly, to be honest, on environmental matters they don't see it as a very important thing," he said. "It's considered at the last moment. When there's kind of an emergency. Then they have to figure it out."

As the government's climate change point-person, Kadio works out of a very small office - and has a very small budget to carry out studies and public awareness campaigns. But he says Ivory Coast is hardly the only country to give climate change short shrift - many other African nations do as well.

Just about a mile away from Grand Bassam sits a tiny fishing village hugging the ocean. Fisherman Gizo Joseph, 32, has lived here all his life. He complains about the poor fishing, and talks about the erosion.

Joseph says people have no explanation for why the ocean is advancing. Floods occasionally destroy the stick shacks that make up the village.

I ask Joseph, and 43-year-fisherman Yao Sabegesso whether they have heard of climate change. Joseph translates my question to Sabegesso into Awra, the local dialect.

No, the two fishermen say, they have never heard of climate change. "Before the sea was far away," Sabegesso says. "Now it's approaching. But we don't know why."