West Africa consists of 17 countries, and measures 7,500,000 km2 with a population estimated at 250 million inhabitants. The region’s geography is characterized by the following two major entities; the Sahel comprising Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, The Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal and Chad, and the Gulf of Guinea consisting of Benin, Cote d'Ivoire , Ghana, Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Togo. It is increasingly becoming manifest that West Africa is vulnerable to climate change and variability and this have been traced it some of its physical and social –economic characteristics, which predispose it in such a way as to be disproportionally affected by the adverse effects of climatic variations. One of such is the impacts of sea level rise. Oceans cover 70% of the Earth’s surface with an average depth of 3,800m. This huge mass of water (3 billion m3) traps heat and slowly releases it, thereby regulating the outside temperature. The Climate influences the marine ecosystem which in turn influences the climate. Discussing West Africa has become very urgent in view of the recent scientific meeting on Climate Change in Copenhagen, Denmark which ended with four scientists from the United States, Australia, France and Germany warning that sea levels are rising twice as previously forecasted by the United Nations two years ago. These scientists explained that rapidly melting ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica are likely to push sea levels by a meter or more by 2100, swamping coastal cities and obliterating the living space of 600 million people who live in Deltas, low -lying areas and small Island states. West Africa is populated mostly by countries exposed to the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. Its sea front has been estimated to extend well over 15,000km including Cape Verde. The 17 countries of the region include only four landlocked states; Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad. The region’s population concentrated on the coastal area (that is within 60km from the coastline), was estimated at 42.68million in 1994, that is a quarter of the coastal countries’. Major urban areas such as Nouakchott, Dakar, Conakry, Abidjan, Accra, Cotonou, Lome, Lagos, Port Harcourt, Calabar etc are all located along the coastline. This area experiences continuous rapid demographic growth due to the impoverished countryside and the concentration of economic infrastructures and investments in large coastal urban areas. In Senegal, 90% of industrial units are located along the coastline, mainly in Dakar and its Suburbs. The same is true of countries such as The Gambia, Cote d'Ivoire, and Nigeria etc. Other countries with increasing populations, such as Bangladesh, Burma and Egypt could see large parts of their surface areas vanish. It has been estimated that a one-meter rise in sea level would swamp 17 percent of the country’s land mass. Pacific Islands such as Tuvalu, where 12,000 people live just a few feet above sea level, and the Maldives, would face complete obliteration. Rising sea levels is caused by the melting of the polar ice caps. Researchers now agree that this phenomenon is a real and significant problem, and calculate that, since the end of the 19th century, the average level of oceans has risen by about 12cm. The warmer the Earth becomes, the faster the polar ice cap melt and the faster the ocean level rise.
These levels increased from less than 2mm per year last century to a current rate of 2.5mm and could reach an annual 3.5mm by 2100. Depending on the various models, they could rise by 15 to 80 cm between now and 2100. Each time a forecast is reviewed and refined, it is in an upward direction. It was revealed that Greenland was losing 200-300 cubic kilometers of ice into the sea each year. This on its own is said to cause global sea level to rise more than a millimeter a year. This indicates amongst other factors that sea levels were now rising by more than 3mm a year-more than 50% faster than the average for the 20th century. In 2005, the first communities to be evacuated from sinking islands were moved out from Vanuatu in the Pacific. A similar fate awaits islanders in the atolls of Tuvalu and the Maldives. The great delta of the Niger, Ganges, the Nile and the Mississippi are also at risk, as are the densely populated coastlines. Coastal erosion is another problem. The West African coast has been particularly exposed for several decades; in Benin, some parts of the capital Cotonou had to be evacuated. The intrusion of salt water in the water table of coastal zones increases salinity in soils, resulting in fertility loss. Global warming can also transform the sea into a merciless agent of death, by intensifying cyclones and tornadoes. In this respect, the protective role of mangroves is becoming increasingly recognized, particularly when well maintained as it cushions the force of waves and the wind and also help combat coastal erosion. In the Niger Delta area of Nigeria, deforestation of mangroves has been driven demands for local energy. Many homesteads and local industries such as bakeries, fish smoking, restaurants and bean cake shops etc relies heavily on mangrove wood, which it said to burn even when relatively wet, in addition to producing good quality charcoal. The wood is said to provide special flavor to smoked fish hence the exploitation of the resource. Oil exploration, agriculture and wild fires are other deforestation drivers that have virtually led to the sheer defoliation and eventual death, of the mangroves of the Niger delta and its enormous natural resources endowments. In Guinea, rising sea levels linked to global warming is feared to likely result in stronger coastal currents, higher tides and sea encroachment of land. Guinea’s coastal region, home to West Africa’s largest and richest mangroves, would therefore bear the brunt of global climate change. The region’s entire economy is now under threat. It is feared that the main victims of all these climate variations would be people living near the coast. An estimate of 2 million people is likely to suffer income losses. In an effort to limit the foreseeable damage, Guinea has launched a national plan of action for climate change adaptation (PANA-CC), which sets out priorities, among them measures for protecting coastal areas. It outlines vigorous action for saving the mangroves and reforesting the region, planting teak and cashew trees. Faced with rising water levels, communities are being advised in Guinea to build sea walls and plant trees along the coast in order to protect the rice fields that have taken the place of the mangroves. Other recommendations include enforcing laws on coastal settlements and tackling pollution. For these adaptation measures to work, it is crucial that local people be provided with environmental education and prepared for possible catastrophes in the future. Efforts such as those in Guinea need to be supported and diffused into other countries in the region as quickly as is possibly. Funds and capacity building are no doubt required to achieve this!