Hoping to make the most of the picturesque riverside and ocean by her hometown of Havui in the South Tongu District, Gladys De-Tada has been working to enter the hospitality industry with a small lodge.
For decades, communities in that part of the Volta Region, near the Ada Estuary, have counted the blue waves of the Gulf of Guinea as a blessing that supports their livelihood.
Now, these same waves threaten to bury their communities.
The past 18 months have been hard for Gladys and her business with the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic.
But the ocean’s encroachment has grown to become a more present danger to her and her community in the past year.
The ocean has already claimed a nearby community in the last three months – Fuveme in the Keta Municipality.
Fuveme was much closer to the sea and had been battling devastating sea erosion over the past few years.
The parts close to Ada Estuary are now almost submerged, and in the process, the area’s topography has been completely altered.
“The sea has created a new estuary by washing away the village [in Fuveme],” said Gladys. “So, if nothing is done about it, it is going to wash away the rest of the communities.”
Havui generally appears to be below sea level at a glance. It is certainly on par with the now deserted community of Dzakplagbe, which is next in line to be consumed by the sea.
Gladys fears the sea will be coming for her hometown next after Dzakplagbe.
“Once it [the ocean] washes away that barrier of land at the beach, the sea is going to come into the river, and it is going to overflow its banks and wash away this place,” she said, expressing her fears.
The ripple effects
While dreading the worst, the area has already started contending with drastic changes to the area’s topography.
An attempt to get to Havui illustrates one of these major changes.
Just three months ago, moving from Accra to Havui was relatively easy.
All one needed to do was take a trip to Ada Foah in the Greater Accra Region and take a straightforward 20-to-30-minute boat ride that uses a route near the Ada Estuary and then comes southward to the villages around Havui.
But with the new sand bar all but blocking that route, the shortest route involves a winding boat ride through narrow mangrove forests.
And this route is not always accessible.
“If you don’t come at a certain time [when the tide is high enough], you cannot have passage to this place,” said Gladys.
This state of affairs does no favours to her business prospects.
“Now a lot of people are afraid, and they are not even using this place because they think it is dangerous,” she said.
The alternatives by road turn a two-hour journey into an almost five-hour one. It also involves a substantial trek because of bad roads.
The other route by boat to Havui would involve travelling by road to Keta before getting a boat to sail westward.
Another Havui native, Frank Kotoka Aklama, is as old as Ghana, to the exact day. And since he came of age, he said he had made a living off the river which extends from Sogakope and beyond.
He is no ecologist, but his experience as a fisherman tells him saline water from the rising sea levels is slowly overcoming the freshwater that serves Havui.
“Because the sea has come and enclosed this inlet and our access to Sogakope, we no longer have access to fresh water,” he said. “So the water that can enable good fishing is also absent.”
Now, catches of freshwater staples like tilapia, mudfish, and catfish are hard to come by.
“I am grilling tilapia now. We didn’t get it from the river. We had to buy it from a fish pond around here,” chipped in Gladys.
Swaying to the tide of Climate change
The challenges of places like Dzakplagbe and Havui have been noted on other parts of Ghana’s Eastern Coast.
Prof Kwasi Appeaning Addo, the Director of the Institute for Environment and Sanitation Studies, has been researching coastal erosion for the past 15 years.
While he stresses that coastal erosion is a natural occurrence, he is certain that climate change’s happenings on Ghana’s east coast are being intensified.
“Because of the changes globally, we now have an increased incidence of storm surge, and water levels have gone higher than expected.”
Raw human activities are also contributing to these changes in some of these instances, Prof. Addo added.
“The people there are collecting sand,” he noted as an example. “If you collect the beach sand and you further lower the system, you allow more water to come in during high tides.”
According to estimates, the sea claims 1.5 to 2 meters of Ghana’s 560-kilometer coastline annually.
The fate of Fuveme is some indication that there may be nothing we can do to stop the inland march of the ocean.
In 2018, drone images from a team of researchers, including Prof. Addo, revealed that flooding and erosion at Fuveme had led to losing about 37 percent of its coast over 12 years.
According to them, in some areas, the shoreline had moved more than 100 metres inland.
Fast forward to 2021, and Fuveme is almost no more.
Crying for a sea wall
Some coast dwellers in other parts of the Volta Region have been working hard to make sure their communities live on amid the threat of the encroaching ocean.
For a place like Salakope, in the Ketu South district, they believe their salvation lies in extending a sea defense project.
Raging waves from the Gulf of Guinea have been eating away at the coastal village of Salakope for the past two decades.
The gravity of the situation was emphasised by the displacing of over 800 residents of Salakope and four nearby communities in June 2021.
“In the space of one month, about 135 households are gone, comprising about 852 individuals,” said Sylvester Kumawu, the assembly member for Salakope-Amutsinu electoral area.
Unlike places like Havui, clamour for the sea defense project is because it seems to be within reach.
Parts of this project, which entails the arrangement of boulders along the shore, are visible a kilometre away from the crumbling homes in Salakope.
The government has commissioned contracts for some sea walls along Ghana’s coast.
The phase of the project in Salakope’s vicinity commenced in 2016, stretching from Havedzie through Horvi, Blekusu to Agavedzi – the community adjacent Salakope.
A second phase, if approved, is expected to cover Salakope and other nearby communities.
At the beginning of 2021, Kumawu had complained to the local government about the deteriorating situation and appealed for the continuation of the sea defense project.
“All he [the Municipal Chief Executive] could say was that government was on top of issues but from January to somewhere March 31, we never saw any sign that the contractors would come back to the site and continue the extension of the sea defense project to cover this community,” he recalled.
What followed was a demonstration by the community on March 31 where it blocked roads to draw attention to its plight.
The flooding and erosion caused by the waves in June prompted some assurances from the government, but this hinges on the government’s ability to secure funding.
While the clock is ticking for most of Salakope, time has already run out for some like fisherman Gbenyo Cudjoe, who have already lost their homes.
Like most residents in such communities, Cudjoe, 49, has not known life outside Salakope.
“This is where I was born,” he said with a mix of defiance and frustration.
While life has been tough for the average resident of Salakope, it’s been tougher for Cudjoe since his home was overcome by the waves in 2018.
Shying away from blaming the lack of government action for his predicament, he believes a sea wall certainly would have made a difference.
“If they had extended it [the sea wall] to cover these places, we would have been protected,” Cudjoe said.
The only hope for respite in the community remains the sea defense project, Kumawu stressed.
“At the point we have gotten to now, the construction of the sea defense project to cover these communities is non-negotiable,” he said.
Engineering vs. Natural solutions
Prof Addo hears the cries for sea walls along the coast. And yes, sea walls and groins to trap sediments on some parts of the coast do work.
But they may only be shifting the problem down drift, he cautioned.
Instead, dialogue between the scientists and the government for a more holistic approach to managing sea erosion is needed, said Prof. Addo.
“The piecemeal approach is not helping us. We should have a management plan.”
The solutions Prof. Addo seems to favour are those that blend with the natural dynamic.
Some affected communities may not want to hear this, but he suggests that evacuating people from vulnerable areas may be the best option in certain cases.
“For me, it is more reliable and more sustainable if we manage with nature,” Prof. Addo said.
The writer, Delali Adogla-Bessa, is an online journalist with citinewsroom.com