High seas threaten Liberian slum

210

On a windy day in Liberia’s waterfront slum of West Point, Gbeneweieh Quoh surveys what remains of her home, fearful that it may crumble into the ocean.

The waves tore away three bedrooms in the past year, leaving the fragile structure even more vulnerable to rising tides and storms.

Yet Quoh’s family cannot afford to move anywhere else, so they are just staying put, she said. “What can we do? Nobody will help.”

Theirs is one of thousands of homes that risk sliding into the sea in Monrovia’s densely populated slum community, according to the Liberian government.

“Almost the entire township is threatened by the ocean…it is mainly seated on a sand dune,” said Duannah Siryon, managing director of Liberia’s National Housing Authority.

Coastal erosion threatens thousands of kilometres of coast from Mauritania to Gabon in West Africa, home to about 105 million people. These coastal areas generate 56 percent of the region’s gross domestic product, says the World Bank.

In Liberia’s West Point alone, rising sea levels and erosion have destroyed about 800 homes and displaced more than 6,500 people since 2013, according to the Disaster Victims Association, a group of community leaders. Displaced families have been forced to stay with relatives, find refuge in churches or sleep rough in open-air markets, the association says – with many struggling to feed themselves.

“We (Grant and his brother) eat one-and-a-half cups of rice a day, two on Sunday,” said Daniel Grant, the group’s 71-year-old chairman whose five properties have been swallowed up by the ocean over the past five years.

“We used to have six to seven cups when I had income coming in from rent,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at a group meeting in a dark office in Monrovia, the capital.

Earlier this month Liberia’s newly sworn-in President George Weah committed to building 2,000 modern homes to replace fragile structures in West Point as well as a sea wall to keep out the encroaching ocean.

But slum residents worry it is too little, too late.

“A poor man is always a patient person. We are still begging them (the government),” Grant said.

WORSENING CONDITIONS

The country is still recovering from two brutal civil wars, which spanned 14 years before ending in 2003, and an Ebola outbreak which killed some 4,800 people between 2014 and 2016.

Now those displaced from their homes by erosion face further hardship, poor living conditions and fast-spreading diseases like tuberculosis, West Point residents say.

“Even animals have somewhere to sleep, but we are out in the cold,” said S. Panteswen, a middle-aged man at the meeting whose two houses in West Point were also destroyed by high tides.

Like many others he has spent a lifetime scrimping and saving while running small businesses on the side, slowly expanding his property by adding on small rooms built with thin concrete or other salvaged material.

Marie Samulkai, 48, a housing volunteer from West Point, built a large home for her family of 11 in the neighbourhood in 2008, making a living by selling groceries and alcohol from nearby shacks.

“In 2014 it (the house and shacks) all went (swept away by the sea at night). Now I’m homeless.”

With her main source of income gone, she said her children “have lost respect for me” now that she can no longer provide for them.

Grant said there is a “desperate need” to educate the coastal community on the danger of erosion and build more solid homes.

Sometimes residents make building blocks from sand or try to reclaim land filled with garbage – which can easily be washed away, he said.

“People take the sand and make blocks. They build bridges on rubbish.”

People sleeping within reach of the sea has also led to fatalities, according to the community.

In May, a boy who was sleeping on his front porch was swallowed up by the waves at night, said Grant. His body later washed up on the beach.

SLOW PROGRESS

Although the Liberian government has pledged to build new homes for displaced families, most have yet to materialise, said the dozens of victims who attended the group meeting chaired by Grant.

In 2016 a visit by former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to West Point raised their hopes.

“She brought food and clothes” and promised to rehouse residents in new homes in Monrovia’s nearby VOA neighbourhood, Grant explained.

About 30 families were moved to what were supposed to be temporary, prefabricated-type structures, while permanent homes were built, he said.

The families remain in the shelters, but none of the more solid homes have been completed, he added.

“They (the builders) started. Some (houses) reached the roof level, some had windows, some just foundations,” he explained.

About 100 homes were expected to be built, but Grant said the project appears to have been shelved in spite of President Weah’s plans to upgrade West Point. “I say to the government now please do not change the plan the former President made,” he said.

Siryon from the National Housing Authority said that the “government will resume the project and hopefully complete them (the homes) within the shortest possible time,” adding that it was allocating further funding to the initiative.

Back at her home, Quoh, 28, wonders out loud who in the community will be forced to leave the area next. “We know nothing but here (this area).”

– Reuters