Sierra Leone Turtle Island on The Brink of Sinking
By Mohamed Konneh
Sierra Leone’s Turtle Islands located along the Atlantic Ocean, west of Sherbro Island in Southern Sierra Leone comprises eight islands, seven of these islands are inhabited with Sherbros as the predominant ethnic group. This eight-island include Yele, Bakie, Bumpetuk, Chepo, Hoong, Mut, Nyangei and Sei.
Fishing is the main economic activity couple with coconut oil production from coconut palm. But these beautiful islands especially Yele, plantain and Bakie are on the brink of extinction. These islands located in remote destinations around the country with only fishing activity as their main source of livelihood are preserving their faith and tradition with a thin hope hanging on a thread.
Inhabitants here spend most of their evenings in groups, either in drinking fresh palm wine or battling-off heavy tide from the sea.
Fishing communities along turtle island are starting to feel the impact of extreme weather conditions and coastal erosion. Inhabitants here are fighting back in an effort to save their fishing communities with erosion eating deep into these settlements. The Sea-level rise is causing the loss of entire communities and culturally significant sites, forcing relocations and costing livelihoods.
Residents on Plantain Island are being forced to move away as the sea erodes their coastline and washes away their homes. This is my third visit to turtle Island in Bonthe District and every visit has come with a different experience.
Reaching Bonthe Main land on a wooden boat from Yagoi reminds one of the dangers along the costal line if nothing is been done to reverse this ugly development. The first thing that caught your eyes is the new concrete wall under construction that is geared towards protecting the island. Yagoi to Bonthe main land is a two-hour drive on boat that gives you the luxury of a boat ride but with constant fear on top of water. Locals here hope the walls under construction will protect the island from sinking.
Along the Sherbro Island that host turtle island communities is in peril as rising sea levels, driven by global warming, are taking over homes, farmlands and important culturally sites. Poor communities in this part of Sierra Leone are now feeling the brunt of climate change with devastating effect.
Sierra Leone’s coastline is predominantly low-lying, dotted with beaches and islands. This beautiful scenery is been taken away and eroded daily.
The vast land mangrove forest provides some protection from the sea level rise. But this very important vegetation cover, which prevents erosion and acts as a natural barrier against storms, is being removed for either firewood and construction of homes. Unregulated sand mining also remains some of the challenges that is already adding to the problem within. The situation is making coastal communities increasingly vulnerable to not only rising seas, but also more extreme weather conditions caused by climate change.
According to Gabriel Kpaka from the Metrological Agency, globally, sea levels are expected to rise between 0.6 and 1.3 metres by the end of the century unless greenhouse gas emissions are curtailed.
Mr. Kpaka noted that around one-third of the population lives in coastal areas in West Africa, which generate more than half of the region’s GDP.
“High levels of coastal degradation, and rising seas could well have a much bigger impact here than elsewhere, on people and the economy as well, he said”.
In 2017, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change ranked Sierra Leone as the third after Bangladesh and Guinea Bissau on its list of nations most vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change – despite the country being one of the lowest contributors to global emissions.
To date around 500 inhabitants have already relocated further in Plantain Island after floods repeatedly washed away their homes.
The Executive Director of the National Protected Area Authority (NPPA) Mr. Joseph Musa said that mangroves, which provide breeding grounds for fish and land for farming, are being depleted without being replaced.
“Worst of it, communities are not replacing the mangroves as the cutting is done in an unsustainable manner. The level of cutting and removal of mangroves is alarming. The same for sand mining in communities along the country’s costal line and this is the more reason why the current problem. Both mangroves and sand mining serves as the big elephant in the room for erosion, he said”.
Indiscriminate sand mining along the coastline is a lucrative business, and a major source of income for many young people, who struggle with unemployment. Despite its devastating effects, vested interests are hampering efforts to stop the trade.
Plantain Island is also adversely affected and most of the historical site on this island is been washed away. Farming activities on Plantain Island is no longer possible as most of the land has been lost to the sea with inhabitants relying mainly on artisanal fishing. There is no available data on the extent of sea-level rise, but it is estimated that sea has encroached by more than 400 metres over the past four decades. Life on this island is becoming increasingly impossible, says Lamin Koroma, resident of Plantain.
This once enviable island that use to host visitors from the city Freetown and elsewhere is now a shadow of itself. Fresh island fish from Plantain is now hard to come by as visitors no longer venture to brave the sea to reach the island.
Mr. Koroma said almost everything is been imported into the island including drinking water. Reaching the island, one will be greeted with ruin homes. This island according to residents use to house over 5,000 inhabitants but today that number has dwindle and continue to do so.
Most families including Mr. Koroma have move further inland, as the space continue to be eaten up by the sea level rise.
Also, historically important relics of the Atlantic slave trade land mark continue disappear. Sierra Leone is losing in many fronts as not only land that is been lost but slave history as well.
Despite, the Sierra Leone’s Meteorological Agency has installed eight new automatic weather stations in strategic locations around the country, experts says more needs to be done. The sinking turtle island remains big worries for inhabitants who on daily basis are confronted with sea level rise and climate change impact.