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Last Updated: Tuesday, 6 September 2005, 10:58 GMT 11:58 UK
Benin seeks to avert sea disaster
By Karim Okanla
BBC News, Djeffa Beach, Benin

Palm Beach Hotel
The Palm Beach Hotel has been lost to the sea

The devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in the United States has given added urgency to Benin's plans to protect its coastline against erosion.

The quick advance of the Atlantic Ocean is visible in the small West African nation.

The fury of the sea waves have eaten up many homes, hundreds of beach residents have been forced to pack up and go, and experts are warning of catastrophe if vigorous action is not taken immediately.

One great danger is that the country's main city, Cotonou, with a population of more than 500,000, lies below sea level - like New Orleans in the US.

So should there be violent floods, a large chunk of the city could be submerged by water and possibly even wiped off the map.

Another concern is that the main road between Cotonou and Lagos in neighbouring Nigeria, which is an economic lifeline for the country, is situated along the shoreline, so in the event of massive flooding, the inter-state road could be submerged as well.

Investment in the growing tourism industry is also under threat.

Plan

This explains why the government is seeking $60m to erect concrete barriers and build levees along strategic parts of the coast to protect the city from the invasion of the ocean.

Donors have already pledged to provide 60% of the funds, says Environment Ministry official David Houssou, and a meeting is scheduled later this month in Cotonou to raise the remaining amount.

"Because of the serious damage caused by coastal erosion, the government plans to concentrate its efforts east of the Free Port of Cotonou," he told me.

He said it would cover 7.5km of beach, and would help save both infrastructure and substantial investment.

Erosion

In that stretch of beach, the once popular Palm Beach Hotel illustrates the problem well, with a large section of the building having collapsed and its owners giving up hope of returning.

Sand collectors
The problem is being made worse by sand collectors
The place is now a football pitch for boys.

Seventeen-year-old Timothee Zannou is one of the young soccer players on the erosion-hit beach.

He told me that many residents had moved out since 2002.

"That's the year when the hotel collapsed, due to waves. People packed up and left. Some of my folks used to live here, but because the ocean destroyed their house, they too left. The ocean seems to advance every year. I feel many more people will be packing up pretty soon".

Even if $60m is spent soon, the money may not be enough to solve the problems for good.

Digging city's grave

Some experts say that Benin actually needs about $500m spent, to combat the effects of coastal erosion along the 125km coastline. But at least something is being done.

An awareness campaign is also to begin soon to try to win the support of collectors of beach sand - who use lorries to take away tonnes of sand for building work.

It is claimed that the taking of sand from the beaches is, in effect, digging the city's grave and it is vital that they voluntarily revert to importing sand.

The authorities are hoping their efforts will be enough to avert a future disaster.




SEE ALSO:
Benin's 'magical' leader
20 Aug 03 |  Africa
Benin readies for Voodoo Day
06 Jan 04 |  Africa
Country profile: Benin
02 Aug 05 |  Country profiles


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