“The water is pushing very hard on our islands and communities,” recounted the Bonthe Deputy Mayor, during a recent meeting with USAID staff in the southwestern district of Sierra Leone. His description captures the profound impacts that climate change is having on coastal communities. Concurrent sea level rise and increasing storm severity can destroy homes and contaminate freshwater sources with salt.
In the Sherbo River Estuary (SRE) landscape surrounding Bonthe, USAID’s West Africa Biodiversity and Climate Change (WA BiCC) activity is working to increase coastal resilience by building community capacity and harnessing the benefits of mangroves.
“With mangroves, heavy storms don’t carry our roofs off of our houses,” added the Deputy Mayor of Bonthe. Mangrove forests have a special role to play in promoting coastal resilience. Not only do they protect shorelines from coastal erosion and other direct threats of climate change, but they also benefit biodiversity, support wild fisheries, and store carbon that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere as climate warming greenhouse gases.
Mangrove restoration for risk management
With training and technical support from WA BiCC, communities in the SRE have formed mangrove management committees and are restoring mangroves in recently cleared or degraded areas. Within two years of implementation, the mangroves are already providing flooding protection and local supply of oysters. Community members anticipate additional benefits from the restored mangroves, such as wind protection, in the coming years.
The communities are also replacing conventional wood fences with mangrove “fences” around coastal rice fields to protect their yield from wildlife damage, erosion and intrusion of debris. The mangrove management committee members say that after a year of growth the mangrove barrier works well and even save labor because they eliminate the need to replace the wooden fences every year. According to Melody McNeil, USAID Regional Environment Officer in West Africa, “Mangrove fences offer a dual benefit of reducing both labor and cutting of young trees for temporary fence construction. It’s a practical solution that serves the community and reinforces sustainable mangrove management.”
Linking mangrove management and livelihoods
In parallel with mangrove management, WA BiCC has been promoting livelihoods through village savings and loans associations (VLSAs) and community engagement. Through VLSAs, community members are gaining financial planning and bookkeeping skills and are beginning to generate resources to cover financial needs among the participants, such as school supplies. The annual oyster festival and competition has become a source of excitement and pride for community members in the SRE. Connections between VLSAs, the oyster festival, and mangrove management committees contribute to community trust and engagement in WA BiCC.
A learning laboratory for scaling impact
Taken together, the ecosystem management and community engagement activities serve as a learning laboratory for climate and natural resource management policy at the national and regional level. For example, lessons learned about mangrove ecosystem restoration approaches, community sensitization and livelihood integration are being scaled to inform practice in other West African sites and mangrove management action plans under the Abidjan Convention’s additional protocol on sustainable mangrove management.
Following a visit to the WA BiCC project area in March, USAID’s Country Representative of Sierra Leone Miriam Lutz remarked, “This is a very exciting project that focuses on technical assistance to protect their livelihoods over time. You can see the impact before your eyes, and it is very impressive.”
Julia Bradley-Cook manages Climatelinks and provides oversight for its content, organization, scope and functionality. She works for USAID as a Climate Advisor for the Africa Bureau's Office of Sustainable Development, where she applies her training as an ecosystem scientist and science communicator to technical support of climate smart agriculture, landscape-scale carbon management, and low emissions development programs in Sub Saharan Africa. She served as a Congressional Science Fellow from 2015-2016 and an AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow at USAID from 2016-2018. Julia has a PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from Dartmouth and a B.A. in Biology from Grinnell College.