Africa

Nigeria's coast 'threatened by shipwrecks'

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Media captionNigeria's coastline is littered with shipwrecks

Up to 100 rusty shipwrecks line Nigeria's 853km (530-mile) shore, officials say. Some have been stranded for years and they are now being blamed for erosion that threatens homes and livelihoods.

The waterfront community at Alpha Beach in Lagos date their problems to a year ago when a barge washed up a kilometre away. Since its arrival, they say the waves have eaten into the land at a rate of up to 20m a month.

"Because the ship is such a solid object being where it shouldn't be, it causes a direct impediment to the natural flow of the current and stops sedimentation," says Desmond Majek from the Nigeria Conservation Foundation.

"But what's worse than that is that it causes these eddy currents that immediately start to chew up the entire shoreline."

Buildings and roads have crumbled into the advancing water. Since April the local Muslim community has been forced to worship in a makeshift tent.

"The mosque is in the sea now," says the mosque's imam, Banuso Shamusideen. "The water just came and destroyed it. In three hours everything collapsed."

Other buildings along the waterfront are now little more than piles of rubble. For those whose homes are just a few metres from the sea, panic is starting to set in.

'Disaster zone'

"It's terrifying. In fact at night we don't sleep because we're thinking the water could come in at any moment," Bode Ajakaye says, pointing out the home he had bought with his wife Ladi to retire to.

"And the problem has been there for a while and it's caused by this wrecked ship. It's a disaster zone I must tell you."

Image caption Dismantling ships becomes more complicated the longer the wreck stays on the beach

"The sea is inching [forward] every second," Mrs Ajakaye adds with a shake of her head.

"All the coconut trees have fallen into the sea. We need Nimasa [Nigerian Marine and Administration and Safety Agency] to remove this wrecked ship and hope that the beach comes back."

Nimasa is blamed by many for the number of wrecks, as it is responsible for the quality of ship that operates in Nigeria's waters and should be taking action to remove the stranded vessels.

The agency's director general Patrick Agpobolokemi defends his approach, saying officials were still carrying out an inventory of the number of ships stranded along the waterfront.

"Most of these ships that are abandoned in our waters are owned by foreigners. Foreigners have flouted our rules," he said.

"We are following due process in removing these wrecks and we are approaching the last lap of this process."

Painfully slow

Under maritime law it is the responsibility of the ship's owner to remove their stranded vessel from the coast.

But with many of the wrecks having been bought cheap and barely seaworthy to work in Nigeria's oil industry, when trouble strikes they are often abandoned to the elements.

"The major issue is that when it [the ship] comes in, it takes a while for the government to get involved because of avoidance of litigation," Kunle Akinde from Accurist Marine and Dredging told me.

Image caption Bode Ajakaye from Alpha Beach has watched part of his community dissolve into the ocean

"They want to appeal for the owners of the vessel to initially remove them. By the time the government comes in the ship has really sunk into the beach and it becomes more difficult to remove."

Mr Akinde is being employed as a contractor by Lagos state government to remove five ships from the state's congested waters.

But it is a painfully slow process. Each wreck takes up to six months to be fully dismantled and conditions can be difficult and dangerous.

His work removing the barge near Alpha Beach is currently suspended due to high tides.

Not everyone is quite as convinced as the locals that shipwrecks are the underlying cause of the community's problem. Global warming and rising sea levels have also been cited as contributing factors.

"The problem of Alpha Beach is coastal erosion generated by the ocean's surge," says Prince Segun Oniru from Lagos state government.

"If we act quickly enough we can save life and property. But we need federal help."

In July, President Goodluck Jonathan visited Alpha Beach to see the erosion for himself and promised to take the problem seriously.

Mr Oniru has employed contractors to remove the wrecks but would like to see a barrier built out into the sea to protect the area.

But the costs of such a major project are huge and the wheels of government in Nigeria turn slowly.

Whether the erosion is being caused by the shipwreck, ocean conditions or a bit of both, by the time a decision is made Alpha Beach may have disappeared under the waves.

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