Why is Lagos building a sea wall?

It is a surreal sight, one that goes against every natural inclination of nature, particularly in a city that some optimistically declare the “safest in the world”. Just across from the Lagos central bus…

Why is Lagos building a sea wall?

It is a surreal sight, one that goes against every natural inclination of nature, particularly in a city that some optimistically declare the “safest in the world”.

Just across from the Lagos central bus stop, 50 metres away from an extension of the Lagos Atlantic bridge, is the junction of Mile 12 and Gateway roundabout, known for its afternoon bazaar and bus stop. Nowhere else on this island do you see this thick covering of white construction material, under which what looks like jostling mangrove ferns crowd together on their quiet banks.

These are recent buildings that have gone up to house the 2,000 people that make up Liguari community, whose homes are being washed away by rising waters. Around 400 families are estimated to have been displaced in this latest wave of sea level rise – but it’s unlikely to be the last. Even the most optimistic measurements suggest that the world’s megacities – including Lagos – will see more dramatic rises in sea levels, accelerating the deaths of an additional 20 million people a year by the end of the century.

Scientists also predict that parts of the wetlands at the southern tip of the island will disappear, which might help in limiting the rise in sea levels in the coming years. But for the rapidly expanding population of Lagos – the world’s 7th largest city and one of the most rapidly developing urban regions in the world – sea level rise may actually help in accelerating its transformation from a shrinking island into a city stretched below sea level.

It might be the main explanation for the city authorities’ propensity to complete sea wall projects, despite the challenges they pose to the environment and society. As local residents are hit by ever-higher tides and storms, the damage to their property goes beyond flood damage: it is simply too expensive for the authorities to repair damaged homes.

Dalibor Sanyu works as a driver in Lagos. Photograph: David Sillitoe for the Guardian

It is a dilemma that is beginning to affect many communities around the world, but it is one that no one really talks about, because there is so much debate about how much should be paid for the polluting of the atmosphere and for the growing costs of climate change. It is this argument that has derailed much of the global effort towards breaking free from fossil fuels, despite the alarming knowledge that, unless it is stemmed, we are on a trajectory for runaway climate change.

While many of us are resigned to a future in which nearly half the planet’s population will be affected by rising seas by the end of the century, those most affected appear to be the ones least interested in solutions.

Unlike regions and countries around the world which have erected big fortifications to protect themselves from flooding, and built large flood defences to prevent the costliest types of flooding, the people of Lagos are clearly placing their hopes in something else: in the septic tanks and pit latrines that they already fill with water, and in their belief that they can protect their homes with the fewest resources.

Certainly no local official is talking about the role of what the international scientific community refers to as “natural capital”, either in tackling rising sea levels or preserving rain forests, both of which are part of what traditional, agrarian societies have relied on in order to survive. They all point instead to an interconnected set of problems that have to be tackled on a global scale, which involve the extraction of fossil fuels and the destruction of the environment as a whole, and whose solution involves “extremely costly and risky clean energy technologies”.

So despite the gravity of the situation, and despite the fact that cities like Lagos – where huge tracts of land are already under submergence – are on the frontline of rising sea levels, there is no mention of climate change anywhere in the current plans to govern Lagos – one of the richest and most powerful cities in the world. It is set to become a megacity which, a mere six decades since it was created, will become the largest mass of people in the world. Whether it is able to withstand the damage caused by sea level rise and the ever-increasing droughts caused by climate change remains to be seen. But perhaps the inhabitants of Liguari can be the last to know.

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