Can Gambia turn the tide to save its shrinking shores?

This story is original featured in Watchman which is part of Climate office cooperation.

When Saikou Demba was a young man who started his hospitality business, he opened a small hotel on the Gambian coast called Leybato and ran a beach bar on a vast expanse of golden sand. Still there, the hotel is a cozy place where guests can lounge on hammocks under swaying palms and stroll along the mother-of-pearl walkways. But the beach bar is not. Demba believes that at high tide, it will be about 5 or 6 meters deep into the sea.

“The first year the tide was high, but it was good,” he says. “The second year, the tide was high, but it was OK. In the third year, I went down one day and the bar wasn’t there—half of it went to sea.”

That was in the ’80s, before most people even heard of the global warming effect.

But for Dimba, 71, and many others like him, it was clear even then that things were changing. The sea was flowing more and more every year, and the coast was crumbling little by little.

Now, Leybato has not only lost the beach bar, but at high tide, he has lost his beach: the sea comes straight down the terrace and splashes over the top. Coastal erosion is clearly visible in the cracked paving stones and exposed roots of the coconut trees. The kelp that used to carpet the ocean floor was gone.

“That weed used to protect the sea, but there is no more now,” Dimba says. “I was also seeing turtles, big tortoises. Now, nothing. We are in a very sad situation.”

Along the 50-mile coastline in The Gambia, Africa’s smallest country, hotels and guesthouses face similar pressures. And in a developing country where tourism makes up about 20 percent of GDP and employs tens of thousands of people, it couldn’t be more important to put up with them.

We have already learned the lesson from Covid-19. Tourism is very, very important” to the country, says Alpha Saine, Front Office Manager at Keraba Hotel, one of the two most luxurious in the country.

After a long absence during the pandemic, European tourists are starting to return to The Gambia, even if numbers seem dramatically low. Sain hopes Covid will soon become ‘history’.

However, the threat the climate crisis poses to the industry is much more serious in the long run, and no one seems to have come up with a one-size-fits-all solution.

On the beaches of Kairaba and Senegambia Hotels, the beating heart of the Gambia’s “smiling coast” tourism industry, a barrier of rocks stretching for several hundred meters along the shoreline has been erected, preventing the waves from crawling away. When the tide is low, the beach is still big – and in the covid era, it’s completely empty – but at high tide there is a narrow strip of sand.

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