Strengthening the climate resilience of cities through cross-border co-operation

By Richard Clarke, Sahel and West Africa Club Secretariat (SWAC/OECD)

The southern nations of West Africa are beginning to experience the second and shorter of their rainy seasons, whilst those countries further north are seeing the end of theirs. For many the happiness of seeing these rains is mixed with anxieties from memories past and current realities. Exceptionally heavy seasonal rainfall in 2007, 2009, 2013 and 2017 saw several major rivers break their banks, causing destruction of houses, bridges, roads and crops, wrecking livelihoods and displacing vast swathes of the population.

In recent weeks, floods have severely hit parts of Burkina Faso, Ghana, Niger and Nigeria, leading to the death of at least 107 people and affecting hundreds of thousands. In Senegal, a state of emergency has been declared following heavy rainfalls and the death of four citizens, while in Chad nearly 200,000 people have been affected. Yet again, the urgent need for immediate action to mitigate and alleviate the effects of climate change has been exposed.

Looking at what more can be done to improve regional resilience, a recent e-book on cross-border co-operation efforts between local and national governments analyses the effectiveness of institutional responses to cross-border environmental challenges. The focus on the Lomé-Cotonou corridor illustrates some particularly revealing insights.   

The Lomé-Cotonou cross-border axis is a corridor of coastal cities containing 1.7­ million inhabitants, stretching 150km along the southern coast of West Africa, which form an almost continuous agglomeration with Aflao (Ghana), Aného (the former capital of Togo) and Hillacondji (in the municipality of Grand Popo, Benin). The proximity of these cities and their wider transport connections to the regional metropoles of Abidjan (Côte d’Ivoire), Accra (Ghana) and Lagos (Nigeria) make the corridor of central importance to regional integration and a test case for regional co-operation on environmental issues given the dual challenges of coastal erosion and flooding.

The corridor’s potential and its problems

This corridor has huge economic potential given its population density, connected markets and the richness of its natural resources (marine and land). Fishing in particular is a key business, and the “blue economy” holds significant prospects. Nevertheless, it is the most vulnerable region to climate erosion and flooding in West Africa, due in part to the west-east current that runs from Ghana to Togo and onto Benin. Between Cotonou and Nigeria, this erosion can be alarming in places — along the six-kilometre section east of Cotonou, the coastline has retreated by over 100 metres in 10 years. As a result, many dwellings have been submerged, causing significant population displacement.

Human activities have also accentuated the effects of climate erosion. The construction of the port of Lomé caused the Togolese shoreline to recede, while work on Aného beach that aimed to protect the coastline of municipalities east of Togo actually caused coastal erosion to worsen. Its subsequent impacts are sufficiently severe that there is a medium-term risk that the municipalities of Aného and Grand Popo could fall away into the ocean, a fate experienced by Hillacondji’s fishing village between 2002 and 2011.  

The shoreline up to the autonomous port of Cotonou, on the other hand, is an area of high sand accretion. This is a result of the development of the port, which changed ocean circulation and has caused deposits of sand of up to 25 metres a year. To the port’s east, groynes were constructed between 2009 and 2013, helping stabilise erosion in this area, but shifting problems further along the coastline.

Institutional responses to regional challenges

To address the corridor’s vulnerability to climate change and coastal erosion, the West African Economic and Monetary Union (UEMOA) developed a regional programme to combat coastal erosion, for example, while the World Bank has financed projects that seek to build climate resilience and reduce coastal erosion. In 2016, the African Development Bank also supported the rehabilitation of the Lomé-Cotonou road, which included provisions for coastal protection construction such as groynes designed to slow sand transit, reconstituting coastal beaches, and reforestation initiatives.

To improve co-ordination, the UEMOA Council of Local Authorities launched initiatives for territorial diagnosis and cross-border planning in several West African cross-border sites. These include an initiative to plan and structure projects to ensure the development of the Abidjan-Lagos corridor is sustainable and resilient. The World Bank also launched its WACA programme to improve co-ordination amongst actors, which proposes a regional strategy for reducing coastal risks and provides a forum for mobilising technical and financial partners for the adaptation of coastal ecosystems and the development of local economies.

Issues and obstacles remain

However, our e-book guide highlights that cross-border co-operation in the corridor remains hindered by a lack of knowledge concerning the growing risk of flooding and coastal erosion caused by climate change. There are scientific institutions responsible for regional risk evaluation projects, but the dissemination of information to political and technical decision-makers at the local level is often patchy.

The other major obstacles to co-operation projects are the lack of institutional capacity in planning, legal mechanisms adapted to border management and access to climate finance for local actors. The availability of qualified technical teams is also limited, as is the presence of engineers to carry out vulnerability diagnostics, risk mapping, territorial planning and urban planning tasks.

But these challenges are by no means insurmountable

To overcome co-ordination challenges, establishing a permanent consultation framework for coastal projects could reduce the likelihood of environmental damage in downstream areas. Ideally, multi-country coastal protection projects could then be developed, using nature-based solutions, including restoration and reinforcement of coastal ecosystems such as barrier beaches, mangroves and coconut groves. The development and dissemination of long-term local land use plans, which incorporate anticipated changes to the climate, would help this process.

Regional measures to combat sand extraction and ensure the effective discontinuation of this practice should also be enacted. Improving control over and diversifying supply of building materials would be a strong starting point. Efforts to encourage the construction of climate-resilient and environmentally friendly infrastructure, such as green ports and the use of renewable energy technologies would also reduce stress on coastal regions.

Improving access to information on climate risks among populations and stakeholders will be indispensable if efforts to support land at risk are to be sustainable; these should build upon the value systems of local communities.