Page last updated at 00:01 GMT, Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Liberians face rising flood threat


Liberian MP Gabriel Smith on the impact of coastal erosion

By Rob Young
Business reporter, BBC World Service, Monrovia

Liberia on Africa's west coast is in desperate need of help as it suffers from the effects of climate change.

The country, which has been devastated by years of civil war, is now facing a second major threat - the ocean.

The United Nations Development Programme say the changing climate means the sea level is rising and the rainy season is getting longer. This has led to a rapidly eroding coastline and more instances of flooding.

People living in one of the capital Monrovia's seaside shanty towns, New Kru Town, say the effects of this are clear - homes have been swept away and lives have been lost.

Flooding threat

Amma Ennim, 49, says there used to be dozens of homes between her house and the sea. But over the years her neighbours have been displaced as the ocean has moved inland.

Amma Ennim by her beachfront home
We are living at the mercy of God.
Amma Ennim, New Kru Town

Now all that exists between the Ennim family home and the sea is a thin strip of sand; a beach strewn with litter and lined with the fishing canoes that sustain this community.

Most of the homes in New Kru Town consist of wooden slatted walls, rusting corrugated iron roofs and cloth draped across rickety wooden structures.

Amma Ennim lives in what was clearly one of the grandest houses here. It is built of stone and had two bedrooms as well a kitchen, living room and store room.

But that changed when one night last year the waves came.

"We were asleep. The storm was blowing. The sea was rough. I could feel the shaking of the house. The whole roof lifted off. The water forced its way in. The sea took half of the house."

Part of the building, which is home to Amma and her numerous grandchildren, has collapsed.

The interior bathroom wall and a half broken bath are now effectively part of the beach. Her master bedroom serves as an outdoor terrace with an uncomfortably close view of the sea.

If aid is not forthcoming, it's going to be a national disaster
Carlton Miller, senior government minister

Most terrifyingly of all, the sea now enters her home all too regularly. Amma fears her grandchildren could be swept out so she makes sure the door that leads to the sea remains locked.

Standing in the rubble at the back of her home she says, "The swell can come up here. The sea could take them away."

Amma is certain that her house, which was left standing by the civil war, will be finished off by the sea.

When I ask her when she thinks she'll be made homeless, she says, "When God says 'today', I can't say no. We are living at the mercy of God."

Sea defences

Liberia's government has decided it can't leave it up to God. It wants to build a series of sea walls in the Atlantic Ocean to protect communities like New Kru Town from rising sea levels.

But that will be costly, and the government has very little money. The economy has barely begun to recover from the civil war.

Flooded fields near Liberia's capital Monrovia
Flooded fields near Liberia's capital Monrovia

"We have to send out an SOS call to the international community that Liberia is in dire need of their support," says Carlton Miller, a senior government minister.

"We are facing an imminent threat, this is not something we can do on our own."

A study commissioned by the government suggests it could cost up to $175m (£106m) to build sea defences at Liberia's five major cities.

"$175m is just about half of our national budget," says Mr Miller.

The majority of Liberia's population live in coastal cities and what is left of its infrastructure is also near the ocean.

"Some areas are so low compared to sea level that a rising tide will see some inundation of low-lying areas," says David Wiles, assistant professor of geography at the University of Liberia.

He predicts 95 square kilometres of land would be claimed by the sea, including large swathes of Monrovia, if the sea level rises by one metre.

'Urgent need'

The exact rate of coastal erosion is unclear because historical records were destroyed during the civil war. But the government estimates that in one coastal city, Buchanan, the sea has moved 250 metres in almost 40 years.

Joseph Sekum
We are all afraid now and don't know what to do.
Joseph Sekum, Buchanan

People living in Buchanan tell a different story. They talk in much bigger terms.

Joseph Sekum, a lawyer, has lived in Buchanan for all of his 85 years.

He shows me where his house used to be and says it was washed away six months after the sea first lapped against his wall.

When I ask him how much the sea has moved inland since he was a boy, he says, "I believe the sea has eroded a mile and a half or two."

"Buchanan is on the brink of falling into the sea. We are all afraid now and don't know what to do."

The government is asking for money to help protect Monrovia and Buchanan.

It has submitted a request to a fund set up by the United Nations after the Kyoto Protocol was agreed by the majority of the world's countries a decade ago.

A sign in Liberia warning of coastal erosion
A sign in Liberia warning of coastal erosion

The idea is that industrialised countries pay money into the Least Developed Countries Fund. That cash is then given to those countries which have an "urgent and immediate" need to adapt to the changing climate.

Liberia has asked the fund for $3.3m to run pilot projects in these two areas.

Under the auspices of the UN Development Programme, a breakwater would be built at Monrovia and "natural" programmes, such as mangrove planting, would reduce sand erosion.

The fund's managers say Liberia could get all of the $3.3m by the end of 2009 and work would start in 2010.

However, the government is clear this is not enough to save the homes of people like Amma Ennim.

Carlton Miller, the government minister, describes the amount of money rich countries spend helping poor countries adapt to climate change as "a drop in the bucket."

"If aid is not forthcoming, it's going to be a national disaster."

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