KRIBI, Cameroon, March 30 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - For over 15 years, Raoul Meno has been fishing the waters off the coastal town of Kribi in southern Cameroon. He has sometimes had to face down storms and high seas to bring home a catch to support his family. But now, he is scared.
"I go for days without going to sea for my catch because of the frightening weather," he said. A bout of persistent heavy rains and surging tides this year has made fishing in Kribi increasingly difficult and left fishermen like Meno struggling to make a living.
"This is the first time we are witnessing such aggressive weather," he said. "I wonder what is really going wrong with nature."
As Kribi struggles to cope with hard times in its fishing industry, the weather is also hitting tourism, simultaneously threatening to destroy the town's two main sources of income.
With its sandy beach, seaside resort, and beautiful lowland scenery, Kribi contributes significantly to Cameroon's tourism industry. It is the country's second most popular destination after the Waza and Bouba N'Djida parks in the north of the country.
But statistics from Kribi's city council show that visits by tourists to the region in 2014 dropped by more than 60 percent compared to the year before.
According to Eric Serge Epoune, a spokesman for Cameroon's Ministry of Tourism, the loss of income from just one coastal town is having a "catastrophic" impact when combined with other pressures on the nation's economy.
"At a time when the Boko Haram scare has ground to a halt tourism in Cameroon's far north, a harsh climate is preventing our second most popular tourist zone from pulling in visitors," he said.
"Tourism and crafts are at a dead end, and let's not even talk about the hotel business - it is virtually nonexistent."
PROBLEMS LINKED TO DEFORESTATION
Erratic rains and high tides have also played havoc with Kribi's hopes to give the city a facelift - and an economic boost. According to city council authorities, rains have caused major delays to the start of construction on a new urban-development master plan, due to be completed by 2025.
The revitalisation was due to begin once building was finished on a new deep sea port and gas plant, but Cameroon's increasingly extreme weather has slowed down construction on those projects.
Environmental experts in Yaounde, the capital, say all the new construction may have made the area more vulnerable to erratic rains and sea surges as a result of worsening deforestation.
Most of the forests in the Cameroon's south have been sacrificed for development projects, they say, including huge tracts of land around Kribi that have been cleared for the new deep sea port and gas plant.
Experts say mangrove forests along the coast are crucial to protecting the shoreline and mitigating damage from storms and high seas.
"Even if we negate all benefits of mangroves as forests, their value as the 'shoreline protector' should be enough to convince us to conserve them," said Youssoufa Bele, one of the authors of a report by the Center for International Forestry Research last year on the importance of mangroves.
The trees' roots spread across large areas, soaking up water and holding soil and sediment, he said.
Samuel Nguiffo of the Centre for Environment and Development in Cameroon, a non-government organisation that deals with forest and land issues, said the first step to protecting the port and gas plant from extreme weather could be through major reforestation efforts.
"A tree-planting initiative by the Kribi local council with support from the government is necessary along the entire coastline," he said. "This would restore the dune ecosystem and reduce the impact of rising sea levels, as well as minimise any future storm surges that could pose a potential danger to the port's infrastructure."
For now, Kribi is still grappling with the harsh weather that has undercut its economy. While fishermen have become afraid of the sea, the women who buy, smoke and sell fish also are struggling to stay in business.
Many have been left with no alternative but to drive to Douala, Cameroon's commercial capital, about 250 km from Kribi, to buy imported fish and sell it on at a higher price.
"The selling of fresh and smoked fish is my life," said Helen Taku, a fish vendor in Kribi. "I feed my family and send my children to school on income from the fish trade. I really fear for the future."
(Reporting by Elias Ntungwe Ngalame; editing by Laurie Goering)
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