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Coastal erosion is a major environmental problem throughout West Africa, but some stretches of the coastline are more severely affected than others. In northwestern Guinea Bissau, coastal zones have eroded rapidly over the past few decades. In Varela, the shoreline has retreated by up to 700 m inland in the past 40 years (see inset above). Both rising sea levels and the destruction of mangrove forests, which act as natural barriers, have been blamed for the loss of land. The loss of mangrove forests is especially visible around Kabrousse and along the coast south of Varela; mangroves have been harvested as fuel wood for smoking fish and for other household needs.

Crumbling foundations of a tourist resort on the beach © I. Niang

As a result of coastal erosion, trees and infrastructure have been disappearing gradually. Towns and villages located close to the shoreline, where most of the economic activity takes place, are likewise threatened. The ruins of a tourist resort, built in the 1980s, stand as a poignant reminder of the forces of the rising tides.

Trees uprooted by the action of the waves, further destabilizing the coastline © Aexandre Cabral

Biodiversity of the coastal ecosystem is also at risk. The habitats of marine turtles and the African manatee, both of whom depend on mangrove forests and sea grass beds, have been shrinking. Saltwater intrusions associated with sea level rise present another threat to the coastal ecosystem.

Due to the severity of coastal erosion in this location, Varela beach was selected as a pilot site for the United Nations’Adaptation to Climate Change in Coastal Zones of West Africa project (UNESCO, 2012). In the course of the project, afforestation and rehabilitation of tourism potential were carried out with the help of the local population, and a biodiversity library was established in the Varela Environmental Audit School. Studies were also conducted of Varela’s coastal biodiversity and ecological and economic vulnerability to erosion. 

Coastal erosion in Varela is expected to increase due to the sea level rise of over 10 cm since 1950. Hence, preparedness— protection of existing natural barriers, monitoring of the coastline, and creation of alternative income opportunities  is paramount (Nicholls and Cazenave, 2010)