A disappearing island: 'The water is destroying us, one house at a time'
When 62-year-old fisherman Kpana Charlie has finished sorting through the day's catch and patching up the holes in his nets, he likes to settle into a weathered wooden chair on his front porch and let his mind drift back to his childhood. Back then, his home on Sierra Leone's Nyangai Island seemed like paradise.
He spent endless hours playing with his friends on the island's dazzling white beaches or splashing about in the warm, green sea. He liked to kick around a soccer ball on the sports field in his village, and in mango season, he would shimmy up the trees to collect their bountiful fruit. Whenever he wanted to avoid having to do his homework, he could simply disappear into the dense forest that covered much of the island.
Today, Nyangai is disappearing before his very eyes, swallowed up by the relentless sea. As recently as ten years ago, it still measured some 2,300 feet from end to end. What's left today is a patch of sand barely 300 feet long and 250 wide. The forests are gone, swamped by saltwater. The soccer field lies under water for 22 hours of the day. And the land on which Charlie's family home once stood, the home he was born in, has long since vanished beneath the waves. In as little as two years, Charlie fears, Nyangai may no longer exist at all.
"It's getting worse and worse," says Charlie, a father of six who has lived in a makeshift home of sticks and tarpaulin since his previous home was washed away. "There's nowhere to go to the toilet. There's nowhere to be free. Whenever the water's high the place floods all over. It never used to happen like this."
With nearly a third of its population living in coastal areas, and its heavy reliance on subsistence agriculture and fishing, Sierra Leone has been identified as one of the world's most vulnerable countries to the impacts of climate change, despite having contributed just a tiny fraction of global CO2 emissions. With a GDP per capita of barely $2,000, it is also one of the least prepared to deal with those impacts.
With global sea levels projected to rise by anywhere between 1 and 3 feet by the end of the century, along with an increase in extreme weather events, the experience of this West African island offers a glimpse into the possible fate of countless other low-lying areas around the world.
From shifting sands to torrential floods
From his office in the capital, Freetown, Gabriel Kpaka, the head of operations for the country's Meteorological Agency, says the reason for Nyangai's troubles is clear.
"We're seeing significant sea-level rise and these people don't have any proper defenses," he says. "All they have is sandbags. If we don't act now the impacts on people are just going to get worse."
Nyangai is one of a cluster of islands that make up the Turtle Islands archipelago. Low-lying and with loose, sandy soils, the islands have always been shaped by the sea. Their beaches shift slowly over time. Sand is eroded from one headland and deposited on the next. But the scale of the destruction of Nyangai, and the speed at which it's playing out, is like nothing the islanders have ever seen.
The island's chief, Mustafa Kong, estimates that 20 years ago there were more than 500 homes on Nyangai, with an average of 8 people living in each. Now there are barely 70. Most people have left for the safety of neighboring islands or the mainland, joining the estimated 20 million people worldwide displaced by climate change and extreme weather events on average each year.
There is little reliable data on sea level change in Sierra Leone. Until two years ago, the country did not even have a fully functional marine meteorological station that could measure it. But, a 2017 USAID climate vulnerability study found that parts of its coastline are already receding at a rate of 13-to-20 feet per year.
From their vantage point on Nyangai, most of the islanders say it's hard to gauge how much the sea level itself is rising. What's more apparent, they say, is that the storms have become more severe and more frequent, the rainfall more violent and less predictable, and the winds stronger, driving ever more destructive waves that batter and erode their shrinking island.
When Charlies was growing up, the thought had never even crossed his mind that the island on which his family had lived for three generations could be at serious risk from the sea. But, by 2012, he'd started to become worried. He remembers vividly the first time he truly began to believe the island might become uninhabitable. It was a Friday night in August 2012, and the islanders woke up to the sound of a howling gale and waves crashing into the walls of their homes. By midnight, panic had taken over, as families rushed to save their possessions and store them in the comparative safety of their boats. By the time the storm eventually abated, 35 houses had been washed away.
"It was chaos," says Charlie. "Everyone was so afraid. The next morning, we all decided to leave. I told myself I couldn't stay here any longer."
Many left the island soon after, but as calm gradually returned, Charlie changed his mind. He no longer felt safe on the island, but the prospect of setting up a new life elsewhere was no less daunting. Nyangai was his home. He liked that the island was free of snakes and, with no fresh water for mosquitoes to breed, virtually free of malaria. His family owned land there, and the surrounding waters provided his livelihood. Besides, moving would be hugely expensive.
"Now we're always prepared because we know we'll have to move," says Charlie. "We just don't know when."
A losing battle against the waves
On a Friday in late September, Charlie stands by the shore in the shade of one of the few trees still standing, watching as the high tide breached the top of the beach and began flowing down through people's homes on the other side. The islanders scramble to make what rudimentary defenses they can. One woman builds a ridge of sand around the base of her house to try to channel the water elsewhere. Another grabs a tattered sheet of tarpaulin and wedges it beneath her front door.
By 8 a.m., at least a dozen houses have been flooded, yet again, and a knee-deep pool of muddy water has accumulated in the center of the island. Children run out to play in it.
"The kids love it when it floods," complains one bystander. "They don't understand that that's what will destroy the island. The water is destroying us, one house at a time."
As the tide continues to rise, shopkeeper Tene Kamara races to pack up her inventory — soap, toothpaste, sandals and other basic goods imported from the mainland — and store them on tabletops above the reach of the water. Kamara spent 15 years building up her business on Nyangai after moving to the island from Freetown. She used to do a brisk trade, she says, but with the population shrinking by the month, she's finding it ever harder to turn a profit.
"I'd go tomorrow if I could," she says.
Some of the other islands of the Turtle Islands archipelago are also experiencing increasing rates of erosion but not on the scale seen on Nyangai. Some are ringed by protective mangrove forests whose tangle of roots and branches act as a barrier to the waves and help to trap sediment. Others rise higher above sea level or have denser, less sandy soil. All are now home to growing numbers of people displaced from Nyangai.
"I loved Nyangai so much," says Karim Anso, a 43-year-old former resident of the island who last year made the move to nearby Sei Island. "The fishing was good. We had good friends. But the water became a problem. The sea took everything."
Each time the water destroyed his house, Anso says, he would build another one farther inland. By the time his fourth home had been washed away, he decided he had no option but to leave with his wife and four children.
"I did it for my children," he said, sitting in a hammock outside his new home on Sei.
An island cut in two
For the roughly 400 people who remain, the constant erosion has prevented any kind of stability. At one point there were three separate villages on different parts of the island. By 2012, however, the land had been reduced to a thin strip, and the villages merged into a single settlement stretching along its length. Then, in 2015, the sea began to eat away the strip's middle, eventually separating the people on one end from those on the other. One island had become two.
At low tide, children from one side would have to wade through water to get to school on the other. At high tide they'd have to take a boat. Friends and families were divided. Kpana Charlie was appointed as a new chief to run Mokontan, the name given to one of the two outposts, while Chief Kong ran the other one, known as Mobiaboi.
But no sooner had the islanders grown accustomed to this new state of affairs than Mobiaboi was overtaken by the waves. As recently as 2018 it had been a bustling village of more than a hundred homes, but by the end of 2022, the last family had packed up and left. Today all that remains of the place are the stumps of dead coconut palms embedded in a forlorn mound of sand that emerges at low tide. Nyangai is one island again, and the whole population is now crammed into what's left of Mokontan, with Mustafa Kong back in charge.
Kong has an unenviable role. He is responsible for the well-being of his people but is utterly powerless to arrest the advance of the water. At one stage he organized the planting of a small mangrove forest in an attempt to shore up one side of the island, but the seedlings didn't last long. Goats devoured most of them. Storms uprooted the rest. Kong has appealed to the government to build a levee around the island, but this has not happened.
"There's nothing else I can do for them," he said, sitting on a chair in front of a friend's home, where he's been living since his own house was destroyed by flooding two weeks earlier. "We used to have so much. Now everything's gone."
'Nyangai is not a government priority'
In the nearest large town, the former British trading post of Bonthe, where colonial ruins still dot the coast, the local government has responded to the sharp increase in flooding by constructing a concrete seawall along the length of the town. But in the many smaller coastal towns and villages in the area, there simply aren't the resources.
A USAID initiative attempted to help protect some of the area's most vulnerable settlements by planting mangroves, but this has had limited success. With insufficient funds for their upkeep, and with the population relying on mangrove wood for building and smoking fish, few trees outlived the project, which concluded in 2021. When the environmental news outlet Mongabayvisited one of the project sites in 2022, it found that, out of 1,000 mangrove trees planted, barely 60 were still alive.
The national government, meanwhile, struggles to maintain key infrastructure and provide basic services even in the capital, let alone undertake costly engineering projects on a remote island now home to just a few hundred people.
"Nyangai is not a government priority at the moment," acknowledges Paul Lamin, the deputy director of the country's Environmental Protection Agency. "We have so many competing priorities in Sierra Leone and only scarce resources."
Lamin says the government has been implementing mangrove restoration projects in some communities, as well as raising awareness of the risks of deforestation, but that no other sea defenses are currently planned.
"Vulnerable countries should be getting some support [from wealthy nations] to strengthen their climate resilience," says Lamin. "But we're not really seeing that."
On Nyangai, Chief Kong's long-held dream had been to build himself a home of bricks or concrete, a home fit for a chief that would be a source of pride and prestige not only for him, personally, but for the island as a whole. But over the years, the dream has died. The typical Turtle Islands home has walls of intricately woven sticks overlaid with palm fronds or a mud coating, with a roof of dense thatch. But for his last two homes, Kong has simply used fabric from old sacks stretched over a frame of sticks, using rusting sheets of corrugated iron for a roof. Doing any more, he feels, would be a waste of time. Most of Nyangai's houses are now built in a similar fashion, giving the place the transitory feel of a refugee camp.
"My heart is broken," said Kong, who rarely leaves his house these days. "I just sit inside, thinking about it. It makes me so sad."
For those who remain on Nyangai, life is becoming increasingly tough. The island's well has been flooded with sea-water, forcing islanders to travel 45 minutes each way by boat to collect drinking water from neighboring islands during the long months of the dry season. There's no longer anywhere private for them to relieve themselves, so the islanders simply hide behind bushes on the shore, timing their toilet trips so that the beach can be washed clean by the incoming tide. Without space to play soccer or forests to play in, children mill around looking bored or devise games among the stumps of the uprooted trees that ring much of the island.
No one is certain what will happen next. Charlie's predicted two-year timeline for the island's future may be on the short side. Others hope that at least a part of it will hold out for several more years or perhaps even longer.
But the island's long-term prospects look bleak. Among the islanders still there, a sense of fatalism now prevails. They know they lack the means to stop the continuing destruction of their island. They also know there is scant prospect of receiving much help from outside. Instead, many say they have put their faith in a higher power.
"The sea is eating our island," said Chief Kong with resignation. "God will decide what happens to us. We're in his hands now."
Tommy Trenchard is an independent photojournalist based in Cape Town, South Africa. He has previously contributed photos and stories to NPR on the Mozambique cyclone of 2019, Indonesian death rituals and illegal miners in abandoned South African diamond mines.
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