'The water eats the land'

UN sea wall in Tanzania protects a prestigious college while local fishermen fight erosion with garbage.


Sea walls built by the UN in the capital of Tanzania are facing criticism for protecting a prestigious institution, while the most vulnerable communities are left to cope with increasing coastal erosion themselves.

The walls were planned and built by the UN Environmental Programme, in consultation with the Tanzanian government. Funded by the Adaptation Fund (AF), aiming to help vulnerable communities adapt to climate change, one of the two walls finished last year was placed to protect the prestigious Mwalimu Nyerere Memorial Academy.

Jon Garcia, environmental consultant and the main author of an independent assessment of the sea wall plans, said: “This seawall benefits few non-poor households and an area of no particular environmental interest.”

The other wall runs around the central Ocean Road, connecting research institutes and governmental buildings.

‘Symbols of power’

Betsy A. Beymer-Farris, director of environmental and sustainability studies at the University of Kentucky, who has researched the politics of UN coastal adaptation projects in Tanzania, said: “I think the seawalls built in Dar are symbolic of power. I find that really unfortunate because the amount of money that has been spent could have been used in so many better ways.”

Part of the AF money was used for mangrove plantations, coral rehabilitation and a drainage system, but the biggest share, 2.5 million dollars, was reserved to the 1450 meters of concrete seawalls. The measures aim to protect one of Africa’s fastest growing cities from destructive effects of coastal erosion, fuelled among others by climate change and rapid urbanisation.

While the poor are expected to suffer most from changing climate and natural hazards, “it is certainly often the case that adaptation interventions disproportionately benefit wealthier groups,” explains Dr. David Dodman of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) in London and an expert on climate change vulnerability in urban areas of eastern Africa.

In Dar es Salaam, communities of small-scale fishermen struggle with disappearing land, damaged boats and flooded huts on a regular basis.

Lawrence Kiragale, 39, has been working as a fisherman for the past eleven years. Every morning after a night on the sea, he returns to his small wooden house at the Kigamboni beach in central Dar es Salaam, where he sleeps and stores his equipment. “The water eats the land, the shore used to be down there but now it has disappeared. I put tires in the sand here to protect my office and the sand from the waves. It helps, but soon I must move,” says Lawrence. 

Government priorities

A short walk from Lawrence’s office lies the Mwalimu Nyerere Memorial Academy. Founded by Julius Nyerere, the first president of independent Tanzania, it has a great historical and cultural value for the country. Called Ideological College between 1971 and 1992, the university has also been a particularly strategic institution for the Government, “best suited to inculcate the Party Ideology.”

Nyerere’s Tanganyika African National Union (TANU) was the only legal political party until 1992 when Tanzania adopted the multiparty system. Before the transition, TANU was transformed into CCM or “Party of The Revolution”, which has been ruling ever since. Although Tanzania is a unitary presidential democracy, the current head of state John Magufuli has been criticized for governing in an increasingly authoritarian style.

Dr. Yohanna Shaghude, coastal erosion expert at the University of Dar es Salaam, is well-aware of the extensive problems of receding coast. “The Academy is an important public infrastructure with very important historical and political values, and it was highly under threat of erosion,” he says. “Many areas in Dar were important [to protect], but you have to choose. And the Government is its own priority.”

The seaside part of the campus comprises the oldest Academy building and seven staff houses. Ukende Mkumbo, the dean of students, lives in one of them. “Trees were falling down and even some houses were on their way to collapse. But now, people are just living happily, enjoying the ocean breeze,” she explains the impact of the new infrastructure.

The wall continues around a desolate area that belongs to the Tanzanian Fisheries Corporation (TAFICO), part of the Ministry of Livestock and Fisheries.

“The Fisheries Corporation and all its offices belong to the government, so they saw the need to build a wall both around the Academy and the Fishing Company,” adds Mkumbo. An encountered TAFICO employee confirmed that three workers in the main office and a couple of guards are currently the only population protected by that seawall.

Tires and garbage

Ian Bryceson, coastal ecology professor at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, who grew up and worked in Dar es Salaam as a marine biologist, called the seawalls a “prestige thing. I mean, the college and the Ocean Road, those are very prestigious places. But not necessarily the places where most people are currently under threat".

Bryceson mentions the northern part of Dar es Salaam as a place where the situation is more problematic: “In Msasani Bay and up to Kunduchi, the rich hotels put huge groins made of rocks on the beach to protect the sand from going away. The groins grab sand and then cause a deficit to nearby places. Now the village has experienced a lot of erosion.”

In Kunduchi, bags of rubbish, cans and bottles are packed and tied to the shore with a green plastic net. Some of the villagers use all the means at hand to create their own coastal protection.

Joseph Paul, 63 years old Kunduchi resident, says: “We do not have the money to buy stones, so people put this instead. Sometimes the water comes into the village, and the fish market is all covered. It is very bad for the village, it affects the buildings and the fishermen.”

Thousands of people, both men and women depend on this village, he says. “Now we are waiting for the government. They say they are going to help us but nobody has come yet. It is the same every year.”

Rebuilding seawalls

Mara Baviera, UNEP Task Manager responsible for coordination of the project, argues that “the academy is a public school and the Ocean Road is an important transport pathway in the city.” When asked what other sites were considered, she referred to technical and practical matters. “Our starting point was to rebuild old seawalls, we did not have funding to conduct studies on geological vulnerability to erosion.”

Dr. Sam Barrett from the IIED, who researches on adaptation finance allocation in the least developed states, confirms that adaptation funding often doesn’t find its way to the most vulnerable groups. “Around 2009, there was a decision whether to go down the road of institutional support or to go for a pro-poor, community level framing for all adaptation projects. And the UN basically chose the institutional support which doesn't necessarily serve the needs of the poorest,” explains Barrett.

According to the project plan written by the UNEP and the Tanzanian Vice-President’s Office, local municipal councils, NGOs and key Government Ministries were involved in the decision-making process. But information about why the Memorial Academy and the Ocean Road were chosen over other areas, remains unclear.

This Author

Michaela Kozminova (@kozmisha) is a freelance environmental journalist from the Czech Republic, Elias Arvidsson is a Swedish freelance journalist focusing on culture and environmental issues.


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