Advancing Atlantic swallows African village

Image: House abandoned five years ago to rising sea and sand, in Totope, Ghana
A villager stands in front of a house abandoned five years ago to rising sea in Totope, Ghana, on Monday. Arthur Max / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The old shore road to Totope is now under the sea, and when developers began carving out another one, it was washed away so often they abandoned it. Now the road to this village is just a track across the sand.

On this southern coast of Ghana, the Atlantic Ocean is rising. Every few years, residents of a string of villages leave their homes and build new ones farther back, abandoning them to the encroaching sand and water.

"When I was young, you had to climb a coconut tree to see the sea," said Alex Horgah, a 57-year-old fisherman, sitting under a thatch shelter. The old men of the village say every year the shore advances a few yards.

Totope has no place left to run: It is squeezed between the ocean and the Songho Lagoon, and the villagers say that in a few years they will have to leave.

Coastal erosion in West Africa has many causes, from wind-driven wave energy pounding the shore to the construction of dams. The amount of beach disappearing every year varies along the coastline and from country to country.

But if predictions of the impact of climate change run true, this could be a preview for many coastal areas.

In Accra, Ghana's capital about 60 miles to the west, a weeklong 160-nation conference is meeting through Wednesday to work on a treaty to limit global warming and combat the consequences of climate change.

Negotiators have a deadline of December 2009 to complete one of the most complex and difficult international agreements in history. They need to map out ways to drastically reduce emissions of carbon and other greenhouse gases blamed for global warming, and devise a flow of hundreds of billions of dollars every year to help poor countries cope with changing weather.

Scientists say rising sea levels will be one of the most severe consequences of global warming, along with more drought and floods, the extinction of species of plants, animals and insects, and greater stress on water supplies for millions of people.

The world's oceans have been rising an average of .12 inches a year since 1993, according to a 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, drawing on the work of some 2,000 scientists.

The panel warned that unless global warming is reined in, millions of seaside dwellers will experience flooding, up to one-third of coastal wetlands will be lost, and increasingly ferocious storms will batter the shores.

The disaster scenarios for the future are today's reality for the 1,000 people of Totope.

'We keep moving the village'
Abandoned concrete buildings are half submerged under sand. Thatched huts have been repeatedly moved back. And about one mile offshore, an entire settlement lies deep under the water, submerged many years ago. Fishermen say they have to detour around the old underwater buildings which snag their nets.

"Every year the sea comes closer. We keep moving the village and we are being pushed down to the lagoon," said 70-year-old Ebenezer Koranteng. He said he believes the village would become unlivable within five years.

As if the encroaching sea was not bad enough, the village faces more misery: Fishing stocks have declined, and modern trawlers are scooping up most of what's left.

The beach is littered in plastic garbage dumped into the ocean from Accra and other towns. The villagers have taken tons of the plastic to the lagoon and covered it with sand, creating a landfill to give them a few more yards of space — and a few more years to live on this spot.

Horgah said the village wants to move. Land has been found on the other side of the lagoon, where they could farm and continue fishing the lagoon. But the property costs $45,000 and it would take that much again to rebuild the homes.

Heather McGray, of the World Resources Institute, who visited Totope on Monday, said it would be the kind of village that would benefit from the fund that negotiators want to raise to help climate-stressed areas.

"It's a problem of money," she said. With 1 percent of the funds that could be raised in the United States "we could move 10,000 villages like this one."