Africa Underwater

Nigeria’s Coastline is Besieged by Global Warming

New research is sounding the alarm, predicting that climate-related sea level rise is likely to put 80 percent of Nigeria’s coastline at risk of being swept away by the surging waves of the Atlantic Ocean.

In a research study entitled, "Perception and Reality: Assessing Priorities for Sustainable Development in the Niger Delta," two European scientists, David Moffat and Olof Linden, wrote that the coastline is in danger of being washed away because of its low elevation. Moffat is a World Bank environmental consultant, and Linden is a marine eco-toxicologist with Stockholm University in Sweden.

Eighty percent of Nigeria’s coastline is in danger from rising seas, and flooding is frequent on upscale Victoria Island, off the Lagos coast. If current trends continue, more than a million people could be displaced.
Abiodun Raufu

The most threatened coastline in Nigeria is on Victoria Island off the Lagos coast, where many of the country’s wealthiest people live. The island is home to about $12 billion of the choicest real estate in the country. Although coastal erosion has been a perennial problem for the island, which only became habitable after its marshland was drained in the 1930s and 1940s, it has assumed a worrisome dimension in recent times. Another study, "The Potential Effect of Global Warming and Sea Level Rise in Victoria Island and Lekki," conducted by the Nigerian Institute for Oceanography and Marine Research (NIOMR), reveals that, besides the possible loss of property, the land mass of Victoria Island and nearby Lekki (an equally highbrow seaside residential area) could shrink by as much as 230 square miles due to coastal erosion and rising sea level.

As the Atlantic Ocean rises, according to the Nigerian study, between 600,000 and 1.5 million people on the island and adjoining areas could be displaced. Some bridges in the area are already in danger of collapse due to erosion, says Professor Benjamin Akpati, former director of NIOMR. The study also warns that Victoria Island and Lekki could one day be completely submerged. In fact, concern about global warming has revived an old debate about the safety of Victoria Island. Already, some residents tired of the recurring flooding are making plans to move out, a trend dramatized by the increasing number of houses up for sale on the island.

Nearly 100 years ago, the fine white sands of Victoria Island’s Bar Beach, arguably Nigeria’s most popular, stretched for about seven tenths of a mile wide. Today, the beach has been eaten away to less than a third of a mile wide. Experts say the rapid erosion of the island, and indeed, of most of Lagos" coastline, can be largely attributed to two breakwaters known as the "East and West Moles," which the British colonial government constructed between 1908 and 1912. The moles were built to protect Lagos" valuable harbor from the fierce action of the waves and to prevent sand from entering the deeply dredged harbor on the ocean surge. Unfortunately, the harbor’s gain was Victoria Island’s loss. The moles altered the balance between the Lagos coast’s rate of erosion and the rate at which ocean sediments are deposited, says environmentalist Seun Ogunseitan.

To slow the rate of erosion, local authorities have come up with a beach nourishment strategy. Since 1963, more than 600 million cubic feet of sand have been dumped on Bar Beach to check the ocean surge. That’s enough to bury a football field more than 1.2 miles deep in sand. These efforts have proven ineffective, as the ocean continues to swallow up the beach at a rate of 16 feet a year. Today, the ocean is barely more than 130 feet from the island, which is believed to be half a foot below sea level.

Larry Awosika, an oceanographer at NIOMR, argues that beach nourishment alone cannot curb the ocean surge. Instead, he suggests a multi-pronged approach, consisting of raising the beach to about 6.5 feet above the high-water level and extending the beach width by no less than 320 feet from the shoreline. He also calls for construction of new offshore breakwaters to dampen the waves" energy before they reach the shoreline, but some environmentalists say this tactic has only made matters worse in other situations. "Aside from periodic ocean surge, the low-lying nature of Bar Beach, blocked drains and the low heads of the drainage channels also contribute to the flooding of Victoria Island," says Awosika.

A contract was signed by Nigeria’s former military dictator, the late General Sani Abacha, to use stonework to reinforce the breakwaters in 1996. But nothing got done before he died mysteriously in 1997. Since then, the adjoining coastline near Bar Beach has been sandfilled only once, in 1999.

Government officials say no action beyond annual sand nourishment can be taken for now. "The cost of constructing breakwaters is enormous, and the government does not have the funds for it now," says a top government engineer. Nigeria is already saddled with $32 billion in external debt. Recently, Special Duties Minister Yomi Edu said the government was negotiating with some multinational financial institutions to source the eight billion naira (approximately $80 million) that would be required to tackle the coastal erosion menace permanently.

But Akpati cautions people who call for a permanent solution to the problem. He says available measures can only minimize the impact on Nigeria’s coastline, as the ocean surge is a natural phenomenon that cannot be prevented. "When it comes to the coastline, "permanent" has no meaning," says Akpati. "The sea level is rising. Anything that is permanent today is not permanent tomorrow, and the rising sea level is a global phenomenon. With time, Victoria Island will be under the ocean."

Akpati’s words leave many wondering whether exclusive Victoria Island will be underwater by 2006, as predicted by Nigerian professor I.C. Ijomah in 1992. His prophecy earned him much vilification then, but it appears he may have been ahead of his time.