Yelibuya: Why is this Sierra Leonean town sinking?

Yelibuya Island, Sierra Leone – Yelibuya, a small town in northwest Sierra Leone, is precariously perched on a sandy, waterlogged stretch of land that juts out where one of the country’s largest rivers, the Great Scarcies – also called the Kolente, yawns into the Atlantic Ocean.

Little more than a few straggly mangroves grows here.

Fresh food and water are imported, and everything from the town’s singular motorcycle to children’s clothes are covered in sticky sand.

But Yelibuya is bustling.

It sits between the coastal cities of Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, and Conakry, the capital of Guinea, making it an important last stop on a long and historic trade route.

A majority of the country’s fish and rice is harvested along the river.

With poor road networks, traders brave choppy waters on small canoes to buy Yelibuya’s fish in exchange for cassava leaf, groundnut, clothes, and building materials.

But life in the town is increasingly impossible; the island is going underwater.

Mangrove deforestation, coastal degradation and rising sea levels have led to dozens of homes being flooded each year. Residents make new ones, often on stilts, to lift them above the slush.

While there’s no official government data on how much the water is rising, elders in the community estimate that the ocean has encroached inland at least 300 metres over the last 30 years.

According to some estimates, Yelibuya will be completely submerged within two decades.

“As you can see, there is no method for protection,” says Abdulai Bangura, one of the town’s elders. “And it gets worse every year. We only seek God’s protection.”

Mohammed Salie Sesay has lived in Yelibuya for 20 years. He’s lost his home twice, most recently in July. Each time a home is demolished, he builds a new one on drier land with money he makes from daily fishing.

“I would leave, but my business is here, my wife is here, my kids are here. We’re fully dependent on the island,” he says.

Mohammed Salie stands in front of a new structure, his third home on the island [Mara Karas-Nelson/Al Jazeera]

Others have one foot in, the other out.

Alpha Kamara moved to Yelibuya after the 11-year-long civil war and started a family.

He considers the town his home but has moved to Freetown because of the flooding. Still, he spends half his time in Yelibuya, bringing with him fresh provisions from the mainland and returning with an abundance of cheap, desirable fish to sell in the capital.

Yelibuya’s relies on imports.

Mohammed Lamin Kamara, a young man who sells fresh water from a neighbouring town at Yelibuya’s market, says: “I’ve built houses out of this business. It’s the main way I’ve made money. I’ve married because of this.”

Because of climate change, Sierra Leone is expected to witness increased flooding and landslides, such as the Freetown disaster in 2017 that killed more than 1,000 people.

According to the United Nations Development Agency, West Africa is highly vulnerable to climate change, second only to some Pacific Island countries such as the Maldives.

The agency notes that Sierra Leone, despite only contributing 0.02 percent of global carbon emissions annually, will “severely bear the brunt of the impacts of climate change”.

The country has already experienced a nearly 1 degree Celsius temperature rise since the 1960s and is expected to experience another 1 to 2.5 degree increase by 2060

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