Mangroves provide a natural habitat for fish, crustaceans, molluscs and water birds.
Adrian Arbib/Still Pictures
The coast of Western Africa spans a broad range of habitats and biota, including the pristine islands of the Bijagos Archipelago and the islands of Cape Verde. Ecosystems and resources are diverse, including abundant mangrove forests, sandy beaches, lagoons, coastal wetlands, and plentiful fisheries. Nearly 200 fish species were recorded in the area between 1950 and 1994 and there are a total of 22 local countries and 25 foreign fishing nations (FAO 1997). It is estimated that over half a million people in Mauritania, Guinea-Bissau and Senegal depend directly on fisheries for incomes and food supply (IPS 2001). There are approximately 6.5 million hectares of mangroves (mainly Rhizophora spp.) along the coast of Benin, Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana and Nigeria, providing habitat for fish, crustaceans, molluscs and water birds (Akpabli 2000)
Storm surges are common along the coast, and patterns of erosion and accretion are highly dynamic. The protection afforded by the mangroves and other coastal wetlands is therefore vital in stabilizing the coastal zone and enabling infrastructure and development.
There are abundant oil and gas reserves off the Western African coast, especially around the Niger Delta, as well as mineral deposits (including placer minerals in Sierra Leone) and abundant sand, gravel and limestone, as well as opportunities for shipping and tourism activities.
Population pressures are among the factors that have and will continue to contribute to substantial resource degradation in the coastal zones of Western Africa. For example, in Ghana, 35 per cent of the population live on the coast, and 60 per cent of industry is concentrated in the Accra-Tema metropolis (Chidi Ibe 1996). In Nigeria, about 20 million people (22.6 per cent of the country's population) live along the coastal zone, and 13 million people live in the coastal capital of Lagos which is also the centre for 85 per cent of the country's industrial activity (UNCHS 2001, Chidi Ibe 1996). The coastal region of Dakar (Senegal) is home to about 4.5 million people (66.6 per cent of Senegal's population) and 90 per cent of the country's industries (IPCC 1998). The coastal population in Western Africa is likely to rise to about 20 million by 2020, through growth of existing coastal populations and migration from inland areas (Snrech, Cour, De Lattre & Naudet 1994).
Traditionally, opportunities for agriculture and employment in the more humid coastal areas have encouraged steady migrations from the Sudano- Sahelian area towards the coast. Much of the coastal rain forest has been cleared to make way for agricultural plantations and urban development and what remains is decreasing at an annual rate of between 2 and 5 per cent (World Bank 1996b). Fragile coastal ecosystems, such as the stretch of coast between Accra (Ghana) and the Niger Delta (Nigeria), are under further stress because of increasing demand for resources compounded by industrial and urban development and their associated pollution loads.