Agbakla Amartey trudges through the sand near the village of Totope, Ghana, and points out the submerged concrete walls of a house.
“This used to be my room,” Amartey says above the crash of Atlantic Ocean waves pounding the coastline. “Yes, this would have been the roof.”
Totope, on a slip of land that juts off the Ada peninsula east of Accra, Ghana’s capital, is one of 22 coastal settlements the local government says may be swallowed by the ocean over the next few years. The rising tides also threaten former slave forts that are luring American tourists searching for their heritage.
Along the Gulf of Guinea in northwest Africa, residents blame climate change for accelerating the destruction of homes and beaches. Lawmakers and scientists say a network of sea walls is necessary to stem the destruction and save Ghana’s nascent tourism industry.
“Even this year, Totope we are not sure will be there,” says Israel Baako, chief executive of the Ada district.
Average sea levels rose 17 centimeters (6.7 inches) worldwide in the 20th century, according to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The waters may advance a further 18 to 60 centimeters by 2100, the group estimates.
Ghana’s low-lying shore makes it particularly vulnerable says Rudolph Kuuzegh, the government’s environmental director, who estimates the ocean claims 1 to 3 meters of land a year.
Many of the 32 colonial forts along Ghana’s 335-mile (539- kilometer) coastline are being damaged, says A.K. Armah, an oceanography professor at the University of Ghana.
“We stand the risk of losing some of them,” he says. “Those that are built in areas experiencing rapid erosion.”
In the 15th century, Portuguese arrived on what became known as the Gold Coast in search of precious metals, pepper, ivory and slaves. They gave way to Dutch and British merchants, who built up the slave trade along Africa’s west coast, which ultimately sent more than 12 million people into bondage, according to the UN.
Ghana is marketing its history as the embarkation point for many of those slaves to attract tourists. Last year, 497,000 visitors came to Ghana, many African-Americans making a pilgrimage to the former slave colony.
The government says tourism brought in $981 million last year, or about 6.5 percent of gross domestic product in a country where average annual income is $520 per capita.
For many, the culmination of their journey comes at Elmina. St. George’s Castle, the 15th century fort in the fishing town some 90 miles west of Accra, is the oldest European colonial building in sub-Saharan Africa.
The Portuguese garrison was a prison for thousands of Africans, the last place they saw before being shipped to the Americas as slaves.
Each day the whitewashed building, a UN World Heritage Site, is visited by groups of tourists who snap photos of the dungeons and “door of no return” where manacled slaves were hustled onto ships. Outside, Atlantic waves lap against the walls.
“If you want to increase tourism, you have to preserve the coastline,” Kuuzegh says.
One model for saving the nation’s history can be found at Keta, near the border with Togo.
The destruction of hundreds of homes in Keta prompted the government to spend $84 million to fend off the tides, said Edward Kofi Ahiabor, chief executive of the district.
Seven granite breakwaters jutting into the sea have helped reclaim land to which 300 displaced families were relocated. The project, completed in 2004, also includes two granite walls that protect Fort Prinzenstein, an 18th century trading post.
Akorli James-Ocloo, a tour guide at the fort, was one of those who had to move inland to survive.
“My family home used to be there,” he said, climbing up a crumbling fort wall to point out a cluster of fishing canoes bobbing in the waves several hundred yards offshore. “The sea destroyed our house, so we moved to town.”
Meanwhile, the UN has funded a 300,000-euro ($469,000) project to rebuild Accra’s Ussher Fort, which houses a museum about the slave trade.
The government is planning another wall to preserve Totope.
The 40 million-euro line of concrete breakwaters will divert tides and sand at the mouth of the Volta River and save the homes of 50,000 people along 14 kilometers of coast, says Abubakar Saddique Boniface, minister of water resources.
Even the latest land-saving projects are only a temporary solution if the world doesn’t address the problem of global warming, Kuuzegh says.
“The sea defense wall, in the long run, will not stand the test of time,” he says.
At Totope, Amartey, a statistician at the Ministry of Food and Agriculture, turns from the ruins of his family home and casts an eye out to the turquoise ocean, where a man is bathing, and contemplates the task ahead.
“These were people’s houses which were miles from the sea,” he says. “It will be very difficult, but the situation demands it.”