If the idea of climate change ever sounded farfetched to some Africans, it no longer is. Climate change has sent an unmistakable message reflecting the vulnerability of every one to its march, as it is explained in the case of a sinking town in Sierra Leone, Nigeria’s distant nieghbour on the West African Coast. This piece originally titled “Yelibuya, the Sinking Sierra Leone Island Town” and published in FairPlanet brings out the details
Northwest Sierra Leone’s island town of Yelibuya, some 5,000 people who live there are staring at mass displacement as the town slowly gets swallowed by one of the country’s largest rivers, the Great Scarcies, also christened Kolente, which drains into the Atlantic Ocean.
Mangroves have acted as buffers between the island and river. These are a set of trees and shrubs that offer a critical ecosystem for fish and other aquatic life. But without electricity or alternative sources of energy, residents of Yelibuya have been relying on the mangroves for fuel and construction as their houses continue being swept away by the raging waters.
This wanton destruction of the mangrove forests, climate change and the rising waters have contributed to the river further encroaching the inland. Despite there being no official statistics on the extent of this encroachment, community elders in the area say the waters have moved some 300 meters towards the town for the last 30 years. Now scientists insist that if the current situation persists the island will be submerged in the next two decades.
And as the waters continue to wreak havoc, locals invade the mangroves whenever they want to start lives afresh by either felling trees for constructing new houses or looking for fuel.
Yet Yelibuya remains a strategic town in West Africa. It sits between Sierra Leone capital Freetown and Guinea’s Conkary, offering a crucial stop over for traders along the rough and bumpy route.
For a town known for its fish and rice, traders from the mainland navigate through tough terrain: the road infrastructure is underdeveloped and waters rough. Traders exchange the island’s commodities with groundnuts, clothes, cassava leaves and building materials.
For the families in Yelibuya, even as they stare at a looming catastrophe, they find it hard to leave the island, having built their entire lives there. They married, had children and built businesses there. Stories of the rising waters destroying homes as they encroach more space in the island and people moving to higher grounds and rebuilding their lives every so often are an everyday occurrence.
Due to its location Sierra Leone continues to experience the aftershocks of climate change with West Africa being one of the regions that is most susceptible to vagaries of weather in the same league with countries in the Pacific Island. Sierra Leone has borne the brunt of these disruptions with landslides and flooding being common phenomena. In 2017 a landslide claimed over 1,000 lives in Freetown. The United Nations Development Agency posits that the country will be one of the hardest hit by the aftermaths of weather changes despite emitting a paltry 0.02 per cent of global carbon.
“What has been happening in Yelibuya is years of overharvesting of mangrove trees whose roots hold the soil together which is now seeing the soil loosen up and begin to crumble triggering the frequent mudslides. The immediate remedy would be to encourage serious afforestation and reforestation while integrating practices that encourage protection of the mangroves both by the government and the people”, said Harrison Tumu an environmentalist at The East African University.
One such project already in progress is the USAID- chaperoned agro-silviculture, the practice of integrating rice farming with mangroves. Working with farmers in Yelibuya, USAID has been encouraging them to have the mangroves in their rice farms. The project is recording success with farmers who have embraced the practice citing healthier farms and ability to control soil erosion.
And as Yelibuya grapples with the rising water levels that threaten human life, scientists are sounding the alarm over other coastal towns especially in Africa that are at the brink of sinking.
Mombasa, Kenya’s coastal town and other East African coastal areas are at a risk of sinking into the Indian Ocean in the next half centuries, with water salinity increasing to levels not fit for human consumption and the soils being overly salty for any crop to survive.