/ 2 December 2022

Ghana: A life’s work washed into the ocean

Hooked: The fishing village of Jamestown. Ghana’s fishing sector supports about two million people. Photo: Natalija Gormalova/AFP

Nii Okine lives in Chorkor, a fishing village in Ghana that has thrived for generations. 

Their homes weave along the beaches and coastline. But the land is being eaten away by the encroaching waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

“All the money I have made from the sea has been washed back in,” Okine says. 

He had put his life savings into building homes in the area, which he could rent out as well as live in. Last Easter, the ocean washed away three of his buildings. Standing near the beach, he points to a now-empty space: “I had one house right there. Now I have nothing.”

He now lives with two of his children in a shop owned by a friend. “Life has really been tough. Sometimes, I think of giving up everything.”

Between 2005 and 2017, erosion destroyed a third of Ghana’s coastline, according to Kwasi Appeaning Addo, the director of the Institute for Environment and Sanitation Studies at the University of Ghana.

In a natural system, these coastal areas would shrink and expand naturally over hundreds of years, with the ocean and land pushing and pulling at each other. People’s activities such as mining beaches hasten this process, which make the coastlines especially vulnerable to sea level rises.

Addo says the melting of ice sheets and the oceans’ expansion means the sea is now pushing into Ghana’s coastline. This is eroding a strip of Ghana’s more than 500km coastline.

In places such as Chorkor, that is destroying homes, livelihoods and leading to conflict.

Last year, Comfort Cobblah lost her home that she shared with renters. “My house was completely washed away. It was a big blow to me.”

Her tenants requested a partial refund, which she couldn’t provide. They took her to court. A judge ruled that she did not have to refund the rent, because what had happened was not her fault.

In the past, catastrophes such as this would be called an “act of God” by insurance companies and industry. This meant nobody was responsible.

But damage from climate change does have a responsible party — polluters — particularly the United States, European Union and China, which are responsible for the vast majority of the greenhouse gases that are trapping heat in the atmosphere and oceans, melting ice caps and driving sea level rises.

The United Nations’ climate agency predicts that sea levels will rise by up to 40cm by the end of this century, resulting in more of the coastline being eaten away. In its budget this year, the government allocated $1.6 million for strategies to save the coastline and protect the millions of people who live along it.

With so little money available, people are facing losses on their own. In some parts of Ghana, they are building sand or concrete sea walls to keep the Atlantic Ocean out. 

As Addo points out, this damages the ecosystems on those beaches. 

For solutions that are more proportionate to the problem, Ghana depends on the actions of rich polluters; first to reduce emissions and therefore slow the rise in sea levels, and to pay for the damage that has already been done.

The November global climate negotiations in Egypt created some hope of support for countries like Ghana. After decades of failure, African countries and their peers in the developing world got the 200 countries present to agree to create a “loss and damage” fund.

How it works in practice will be decided in future negotiations. But its spirit is to help countries like Ghana, which is responsible for less than 0.04% of global carbon emissions, survive a world that is changing through no fault of their own.

This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper produced in partnership with the Mail & Guardian. It’s designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.