It was once the pearl of West Africa – the “Pearl of the Lagoons” as people liked to call it.
Today, the vast Ebre Lagoon, which adjoins the Ivorian economic capital of Abidjan, is an eerie sight, choked by plastic pollution and ravaged by sand mining and rampant development.
Named after the ethnic group that lives on its shores, the lagoon covers 120,000 hectares (297,000 acres), mostly separated from the Atlantic Ocean by a strip of land.
Old-timers feel nostalgic for the days when its waters were pristine aquamarine and its mangroves teemed with fish and wildlife.
Today, the coastal village of Beago is an example of a nightmare plastic problem.
Discarded bottles, wrappers and other plastic debris line the shores for at least a kilometer (more than half a mile).
“The situation is alarming. There are no more fish due to pollution – fishing has been abandoned,” said village headman Paul Abe Blesu, 73 years old.
Municipal and industrial waste from Yopugon, Abidjan’s largest district, has turned his village of 3,000 into an open dump, he said.
“If we are not careful, Beago could disappear in a few years, abandoned by its inhabitants,” he said.
Discarded plastic usually enters the marine environment from rivers, drains or wind. Once there, it becomes a known problem.
Larger pieces can suffocate seabirds and mammals, and after biodegrading, which can take years, tiny fragments can enter the food chain at the smallest level.
Many rich economies are trying to stop this with measures such as banning single-use plastic bags, launching awareness programs and sorting garbage to encourage recycling.
But in Côte d’Ivoire, as in many developing countries, little such progress has been made.
The country of 26 million produces 460,000 tons of plastic waste each year, said Yaya Kone, CEO of recycling company Coliba Africa.
Of these, 290,000 tonnes come from Abidjan, home to around six million people.
“Only three percent is recycled and reused,” he said.
The rest “ends up in nature, especially in the lagoon and the sea.”
One of the largest expanses of brackish water in Africa, the lagoon stretches across the countryside west of Abidjan to Azanyi National Park.
Its eastern point lies in Grand Bassam, the first French colonial capital of Côte d’Ivoire, known today for its ocean beaches.
“Plastic is the biggest source of pollution (in the lagoon),” said Aenon Seka of the Institute of Tropical Geography at Kokodi University in Abidjan.
But plastic is not the only disease.
Around Bitri Bay, pollution is compounded by industrial sand mining and haphazard development.
“Bitree Bay is a dead bay – it’s extremely polluted, a real environmental disaster,” said businessman Bernard Derien, 76, who has lived in the area since 1998.
He said 1.6 million square meters (17.2 million square feet) of the bay had been filled in to build factories.
Gérard Freire, a Frenchman who has lived in Abidjan for 67 years and owns a hotel in the bay, remembers the old days with nostalgia.
“Bietri used to be a corner of paradise, but now it’s poto-poto,” Frere said, using the term to refer to a dirty, mosquito-infested and flood-prone area.
A specialist in sport fishing, Frere said the pollution has cut his turnover in half.
“The floor of the lagoon is covered with plastic debris 30 centimeters (feet) thick,” he said.
Voices are being raised to stop the lagoon’s catastrophic decline, with some like Darien calling for a massive sewage network to keep the water flowing into the lagoon from Abidjan clean.
Residents of the Bitri district have formed the Abidjan Ma Lagune association, and Kone is launching a training program for 6,000 plastic waste collectors.
But public awareness is still far behind, said Quoadio Afian, an oceanographer at the University of Abidjan.
“People don’t realize that if they throw a plastic bottle on the street, it could end up in the lagoon,” he said.
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