BAKASSI PENINSULA, Cameroon (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Extreme weather has severely damaged infrastructure on Cameroon’s Bakassi Peninsula, threatening the intense development efforts undertaken since the long-contested area was ceded to the country.
Weeks of rainfall, accompanied by high tides near the coastal border with Nigeria, have triggered heavy floods in virtually all villages on the peninsula, submerging houses and forcing the population to flee for safety.
Environmentalists blame the flooding not only on the weather but also on the destruction of mangrove forests - crucial to shoreline protection - by the area’s growing population.
“The floods in the Bakassi villages of Akwa, Kombo Abedimo, Isangele and Idabato have been quite damaging, submerging most of the houses and infrastructure, making life in the area practically impossible and constituting a big danger to humans and property,” Bernard Okalia, governor of the country’s Southwest Region, said on state television on July 10.
The resource-rich peninsula, together with the 1,600km-long (1,000-mile) border area between Cameroon and Nigeria extending from Lake Chad to the Gulf of Guinea, was long a bone of contention between the two countries, culminating in military confrontations in the early 1990s.
A decision by the International Court of Justice in October 2002 handed the peninsula to Cameroon. With the help of the United Nations, the dispute was resolved peacefully with the signing of the Greentree Peace Accord in August 2006.
Cameroon assumed full control of the oil-rich peninsula on the African Atlantic Gulf of Guinea a year ago. In an attempt to stamp its full sovereignty on the area, the government has been working to improve the lot of the peninsula’s inhabitants by constructing schools, health centres and administrative buildings, as well as providing fishing infrastructure and other basic needs that had been lacking.
But many of these projects have been damaged or destroyed by the recent flooding, officials said.
“The Bakassi community is virtually cut off from the rest of the country, with the bad state of its earth roads making movement practically impossible, especially during the rainy season,” said Aboko Patrick Anki, mayor of Kombo Abedimo.
“Now with the heavy floods, things have just got out of hand and life is difficult,” he added.
Local residents say it’s the first time they have seen such extreme weather conditions.
“We have been having floods here in Bakassi, especially when there are high tides, but never of this magnitude. I have lost all my fishing equipment,” said a tearful John Effim, a fisherman in Isangele village.
The government says it has asked the peninsula’s more than 300,000 residents, who are mainly fisherfolk, to leave the zone for nearby Mundemba town to the north. Others - mostly Nigerian fishermen - have fled to Nigeria.
“We have provided temporary lodging in Mundemba town for the displaced people,” Governor Okali said.
MANGROVES CUT DOWN
Environmentalists blame the situation on the persistent exploitation of mangrove forests by local communities.
According to staff at the Centre for Environment and Rural Transformation (CERUT), an NGO based in Limbe, almost half the mangrove trees on the riverbanks of the peninsula have been cut down.
“The mangrove forest in the Bakassi area, just like the coastline bordering Cameroon and Nigeria, has been floored by fishermen and other inhabitants who exploit trees for commercial wood,” said Charley Ntonifor, a CERUT programme officer.
According to Ntonifor, the situation has been exacerbated by a growing influx of people into coastal regions from Cameroon and Nigeria in search of work, since the Greentree accord and the start of development projects in the region.
“In the process, the forest is cleared at a faster rate than is sustainable for regeneration,” he said.
The local administrative and military authorities say much of the exploited mangrove wood is sold in Nigeria, where the market is much bigger than in Cameroon. But the wood is also used locally for construction and as fuel.
Peninsula residents say the wood burns well even when freshly cut because of the presence of oil in the area.
“This coastline region is very cold, so the people burn a lot of wood to keep warm and to smoke fish,” said Effim, the fisherman.
However, environmentalists fear the overexploitation of the mangroves that protect Cameroon from rising seas may increase risks along the entire coastline, magnified by population migration to the country’s southwestern coast.
Scientists at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) said in a report last year that the world cannot afford to ignore the unique importance of mangroves as it grapples with the effects of climate change.
“Even if we negate all benefits of mangroves as forests, their value as the ‘shore-line protector’ should be enough to convince us to conserve them,” said Youssoufa Bele, one of the report’s authors. The trees’ roots spread across a large area, soaking up water and encouraging sedimentation, he explained.
In Africa, as in many other parts of the world, efforts to combat deforestation have focused on inland tropical forests.
But Youssoufa and CIFOR report co-author Denis Sonwa believe more attention should be paid to wetter areas and water forests.
“Mangroves are still forests, and deserve some management plan and better regulation as other forests do,” Sonwa said.
Elias Ntungwe Ngalame is a Cameroon-based freelance writer with an interest in climate change, environmental and governance issues.