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child standing in home as sea water enters
The people of Nyangai Island, Sierra Leone, are accustomed to seeing their homes flood, and most have plans to leave in the next five to 10 years. Photo by Tommy Trenchard

The Water Is Eating the Island

Villagers hang onto the last patch of Sierra Leone’s Nyangai Island, knowing that their home may soon disappear.

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Photos and text by Tommy Trenchard

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Before the sea started taking house-sized bites out of Nyangai, this small tropical island off the coast of Sierra Leone hummed with activity. I first visited in 2013 while documenting the construction of a school on a neighboring island. It was a cloudless day in April. A group of teenagers was busy setting up a sound system for a party. Old men chatted and smoked in the shade of palm trees. Children chased each other through the maze of sandy lanes while a constant traffic of roughly hewn wooden boats plied the surrounding waters.

The silhouettes of coconut palms and June plum trees dominated the island’s profile, and beneath them stood clusters of neat mud-and-thatch homes. The beach that ringed the island was so white it hurt the eyes, the water a limpid green. I couldn’t stay for long, but Nyangai left a deep impression.

In December of the following year, I caught another glimpse of the island, this time while flying over it in a United Nations helicopter delivering emergency supplies to a nearby island at the height of the West African Ebola epidemic. From the air, it looked fragile, its curved, slender form barely 50 meters wide in places. I didn’t know it then, but the island I was looking at was a mere stub of what it had once been.

Nyangai (also spelled Nyankai and Yankai on some maps) is shrinking at an alarming rate, its sandy soil eroded by an increasingly destructive sea. In the span of a human lifetime, the vast majority of its land has disappeared, and most of its population has fled. Those who remain, many of whose families have called Nyangai home for generations, are squeezed into an ever-decreasing patch of sand. Within a few years, many fear, the island may disappear altogether.

Returning to Nyangai in 2023, a decade after my first visit, I found the place almost unrecognizable. From a satellite image, I had seen that the island had been split in half by the sea, leaving two bean-shaped patches of land separated by a wide gulf. But as my boat approached, I could see only one: in the time since Google had last updated its satellite image in 2018, an entire village of several hundred people had vanished.

Satellite images show how a large portion of Nyangai has been subsumed by the sea. Images by Google Earth

“The water is eating the island,” says Tewoh Koroma, a mother of six who lost her home to flooding in September 2023. “We already fled from the water once and now we’re getting flooded again. The water is following us.”

Over the past decade, each new storm or flood has prompted more to leave. Some head for the country’s coastal capital, Freetown, or to other towns on the mainland, while others move to nearby islands. Nyangai’s leaders say there were once more than 500 homes here. Today there are fewer than 100.

The Turtle Islands archipelago, in which Nyangai lies, has always been vulnerable to erosion. Most of the islands rise little more than a meter or two above sea level, and their loose soils are easily shifted by the ocean’s powerful currents. Stretches of shoreline slowly recede or advance, and offshore sandbanks come and go. But the crisis now unfolding on Nyangai is on a different scale. Since 2014, the island has shrunk from roughly 700 meters long to just 170. Many blame the increasingly erratic weather and more powerful storms. As one resident puts it, “Everything’s out of place.”

An aerial view shows the remnants of Nyangai Island, Sierra Leone.

An aerial view shows the remnants of Nyangai Island, Sierra Leone.

Life on Nyangai has never been easy. The island lacks roads, piped water, and electricity. Living conditions are basic. But it’s only with deep reluctance that many finally leave. The island is peaceful, its community tight-knit. It’s free of snakes and has virtually no malaria. The fishing, on which nearly everyone relies, is better than elsewhere. During times of upheaval, from Sierra Leone’s civil war in the 1990s to the Ebola outbreak of 2014, the island has offered a level of sanctuary. For most, it is the only home they have ever known.

Nyangai is not alone in its existential battle with the ocean; similar scenes are unfolding along much of Sierra Leone’s coastline. In the village of Lakka, near Freetown, the ocean is washing away two-story concrete houses piece by piece. On Plantain Island, some 30 kilometers to the north of Nyangai, farmers have seen their agricultural land either contaminated with salt water or swept away altogether. And in the north of the country, residents of the bustling trading town on Yelibuya Island have found themselves forced to retreat ever farther inland to escape the encroaching sea.

aerial photo of Nyangai Island in 2014

This aerial view shows Nyangai Island in December 2014, shortly before the sea split it into two.

“It’s becoming very alarming,” says Tamba Emmanuel Nyaka, the deputy director of the Climate Change Secretariat in Sierra Leone’s Environment Protection Agency, who recently visited some of the worst affected areas. “We realize that the problem is getting worse. People showed us where they used to live, where their cemetery was, their fields, houses, and now it’s just seawater. They’re constantly having to move.”

Government officials say natural processes are being exacerbated by a series of factors including changing weather patterns, rising sea levels, the felling of mangrove forests, and in more urban areas, the mining of beach sand for construction. In 2021, the government released a new National Adaptation Plan to address the impacts of climate change, but it’s hamstrung by both a lack of data—the country’s first marine meteorological station has been operating for only two years—and a lack of resources. The government has implemented mangrove restoration projects in some areas but with limited success. As for Nyangai, an official confirmed there are no plans to build any sea defenses.

aerial photo of Nyangai Island

Island elders say that Nyangai once held three villages, large areas of forest, and a thriving community.

Almost everyone still on Nyangai has lost at least one home in recent years, and some, like 35-year-old Gaya Bang, have lost as many as four. “We’ve spent so much money building new houses,” she says.

With so much uncertainty over the island’s future, most people now rebuild with only basic materials: squares of sackcloth over a grid of sticks for walls; old metal sheets, often riddled with holes, for roofs. Gone are the neat mud-walled cottages I had seen on my first visit. Gone too is the island’s freshwater supply; the well water is now so brackish it can be used only for washing. In the rainy season, islanders collect rainwater in buckets. In the dry season, they must take an hour-and-a-half round trip by boat to collect water from neighboring islands.

The atmosphere, too, has changed. Children still entertain themselves, devising games in the tree graveyards that ring parts of the island, but the electric energy of a busy fishing village has given way to a sense of lethargy. The island’s chief laments that the parties and cultural dances that used to be common have faded away. These days, he says, the sound system comes out just once or twice a year to mark the rare visits by campaigning politicians.

Children look out to sea from the stumps of palm trees.

Children look out to sea from the stumps of palm trees.

“We’ve been telling the government … that we need help,” says Hasan Kargbo, the island’s harbor master. “But so far we’ve seen nothing.”

Seeing little prospect of outside intervention, the islanders attempted to stem the erosion by planting mangroves, but few of the seedlings survived for long. When the island floods during the highest tides, some build levees of sand around their homes, bolstered with sheets of tarpaulin, lengths of timber, car tires, or any other sturdy objects they find lying around. Beyond that, there’s little they can do but wait for the tide to go down.

“We love our island,” says Kargbo, who has already started looking for a piece of land on the mainland to start a new life with his wife and six children. “[But] it’s going to disappear.”


A woman carries a bucket of water through the cramped maze of shacks huddled on the last inhabitable area of the island.

A woman carries a bucket of water through the cramped maze of shacks huddled on the last inhabitable area of the island.


Dead and dying trees, the remnants of what elders say was once a forest, dot the fast-receding shoreline of Nyangai Island.

Dead and dying trees, the remnants of what elders say was once a forest, dot the fast-receding shoreline of Nyangai Island.


Hasan Kargbo, 32, photographed at his home, is searching for a place to relocate his family.

Hasan Kargbo, 32, photographed at his home, is searching for a place to relocate his family.


Gaya Bang prepares a meal by torchlight in the early morning. Her family has lost four homes to the sea.

Gaya Bang prepares a meal by torchlight in the early morning. Her family has lost four homes to the sea.


Fishermen prepare their nets while a rising tide approaches nearby homes.

Fishermen prepare their nets while a rising tide approaches nearby homes.


Eight-year-old Ndole Kamara perches on the side of his family’s fish-smoking hut as the rising tide laps against its walls.

Eight-year-old Ndole Kamara perches on the side of his family’s fish-smoking hut as the rising tide laps against its walls.


A chicken prepares to jump off a stump surrounded by flood waters.

A chicken prepares to jump off a stump surrounded by floodwaters.


A resident rushes to build a sand barrier in an attempt to protect her home from high-tide flooding.

A resident rushes to build a sand barrier in an attempt to protect her home from high-tide flooding.


A boy looks on as seawater floods into his home.

A boy looks on as seawater floods into his home.


Children wade through floodwater. Several thousand people once lived on Nyangai Island. Now, all but around 400 have fled.

Children wade through floodwater. Several thousand people once lived on Nyangai Island. Now, all but around 400 have fled.


A boy climbs on a fallen tree killed by seawater.

A boy climbs on a fallen tree killed by seawater.

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Cite this Article:

Cite this Article: Tommy Trenchard “The Water Is Eating the Island,” Hakai Magazine, Mar 19, 2024, accessed July 12th, 2024, https://hakaimagazine.com/videos-visuals/the-water-is-eating-the-island/.


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