(CNSNews.com) – U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power posted photos on Twitter Wednesday to illustrate the purported effects of climate change on a West African nation’s coastline, but the pictures show a hotel that collapsed into the sea 12 years ago, the victim of erosion blamed largely on years of illegal mining of coastal sand.
“Had sobering meeting with Benin’s U.N. Ambassador, who described the devastating effects of climate change on his coastal country,” she tweeted. “Showed me chilling photos of eroding coastline, said ‘that’s climate change – a daily life of falling in the sea.’”
Although not identified by Power, the two photos posted with the tweet are of the remains of the Palm Hotel in Cotonou, the largest city in Benin, a small, narrow country tucked between Nigeria and Togo. The building collapsed in 2002, 20 years after it was built.
A Nexis search of news reports going back almost two decades shows that Benin, like its Gulf of Guinea neighbors, has long struggled with coastal erosion, a problem recorded since the 1960s.
The earlier reports, however, say nothing about climate change, rising sea levels or melting icecaps.
Instead, the erosion is attributed largely to activity by locals and poor decision-making by authorities in the affected countries, and in Cotonou’s particular case to the city’s location on a narrow strip of low-lying land, between a large lake and the sea.
A 1997 Pan African News Agency (PANA) report blamed Benin’s coastal erosion on a “lack of coherent environmental policy, high population growth and over-exploitation of natural resources.”
Another PANA report the following year quoted an Organization for African Unity (now African Union) scientific commissioner as saying in a speech on Benin’s coastal erosion that the causes were both local human activity and natural phenomena, including “very low coastal topography, intense waves and high winds and weak soils.”
In 2001, a report by the United Nations’ Integrated Regional Information Network (IRIN) news service referred to disruptions of natural sand movement along the West African coast, including Benin, caused by the construction decades earlier of the port of Lome in neighboring Togo, which included the construction of a 1.1 mile-long protective jetty
An IRIN report in 2003 noted the collapse of Cotonou’s Palm Hotel the previous year, but made no reference to global climate change or rising sea levels.
“Environmentalists say the building of a new port [in Cotonou] 40 years ago, the construction of dams on rivers near the coast, the removal of sand from beaches to make cement, and other human activities are partly responsible for the coastline’s rapid retreat,” it said.
“The city began to suffer coastal erosion in 1962 after the construction of breakwaters for new deep-water port interrupted the wave-driven movement of sand along the coastline,” the report said. “For the next 25 years the waterfront to the east of the breakwaters, deprived of new sediments to make up for those being washed further down the coast, retreated by 15 to 20 meters a year.”
The report quoted a Port of Cotonou coastal management expert as saying that more than one million cubic meters of sand are removed from Benin’s beaches each year.
A 2005 BBC report on erosion in Cotonou referred to plans to build levees along the coast to protect the city from “the invasion of the ocean.”
But it, too, did not refer to rising sea levels or climate change.
“It is claimed that the taking of sand from the beaches is, in effect, digging the city’s grave,” the report said.
A U.N. Development Program (UNDP) project started in 2008 points to another contributor to Benin’s erosion problems – the harvesting of oysters in ways that damage mangrove trees by chopping healthy branches. Encouraging more sustaining methods of removing the oysters, the UNDP noted that the mangrove trees help to “protect the coastline from erosion.”
‘All due to climate change’
Only in more recent years have references to climate change started to appear in news reports on Benin’s erosion problems.
An IRIN report in Aug. 2008 quoted a German environmental activist as saying coastal erosion along the Gulf of Guinea “is all due to climate change – the greenhouse gas emissions result in global warming and subsequent melting of the Greenland ice cap.”
A month later, another IRIN report said, “Coastal erosion in the Gulf of Guinea, including Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, Benin and Nigeria, has been linked to climate change, and in turn to rising sea levels, flooding, and waterborne diseases.”
However, the same report also reported on the sand removal problem.
“Until recently, it was legal for companies in Benin to pump sand from the beach for construction projects, further shrinking the coast,” it said. “The government banned this practice in September 2007, but locals say they still see companies hauling away sand.”
(Another IRIN report, in Oct. 2008, said the ban had in fact been put in place 15 years earlier, but that “coastal sand mining is still common in Benin.”)
A 2011 Inter Press Service report on coastal erosion in the area blamed both local human activity and global climate change.
“Climate change-induced rises in sea levels are part of the problem, but other activities such as unregulated sand mining and the destruction of coastal mangrove forests have also played a role throughout the region,” it said.
Benin, a country with a population of around 10 million, is slightly smaller than Pennsylvania.