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. Once the 'pearl' of Ivory Coast, Abidjan lagoon now a pollution nightmare

The Ebrie Lagoon separates the business district of Abidjan from the Gulf of Guinea. Betty Press Panos Pictures
by Staff Writers
Abidjan (AFP) Dec 3, 2007
The vast, briny body of water that abuts Abidjan, once a symbol of the Ivory Coast's beauty, has suffered from years of major pollution, endangering the four million inhabitants that live along the river coastline.

"The Ebrie Lagoon of Abidjan, called the 'pearl of the lagoons' is today a disgrace to look at," Ivorian Environmental Minister Daniel Aka Ahizi said at the National Environmental Festival held last month.

"It is hard to understand how thoroughly and seriously polluted" the lagoons are, said Ahizi, who spoke of the role the lagoons had in developing the Port of Abidjan, West Africa's top port, and its contribution to the Ivorian economic miracle of the 1970s.

Covering a surface of 120,000 hectares, the Ebrie lagoon has been transformed into a dumping ground for urban and industrial waste in the economic capital of the country.

A recent investigation of the Ivorian Anti-Pollution Centre (CIAPOL) found that the water was contaminated with microbes and a layer of sedimentation because of pollution from worn-out sewage systems and garbage tossed into the lagoon.

Nearly 60 percent of the industry in the country is concentrated around the lagoon area, contributing in large part to the degradation of the area.

Also speaking at the Environmental Festival, President Laurent Gbagbo expressed regret that "the lagoon in which I swam 45 years ago became polluted" and anger at the way "Abidjan residents have treated their surroundings."

"The population is exposed to a number of contagious diseases, mainly cholera and typhoid fever," said Ivorian environmental specialist Thierry Mangle.

"The disappearance of the mangroves, a natural depolluting element that absorbs all the chemical particles in the water, has aggravated the situation," he said, adding that "an ecological catastrophe was coming."

The water quality is so bad, water skiers abandoned the lagoon 20 years ago.

But the lagoon is still home to some 150 species of rare shellfish, which are also threatened, he added.

"It must be decided quickly. If not, we risk getting into an irreversible situation," said Kopieu Gouganou, an official on a governmental team studying the lagoon.

At least 2.2 trillion CFA Francs (33.6 billion euros, 50 billion dollars) will be necessary over the next 25 years in order to build decontamination and drainage works to regulate and control all the discharge into the lagoon.

In order to make it happen, Gouganou proposes a "polluter-pays" system of environmental taxes.

Abidjan District Governor Pierre Amondji announced last month the creation of a "lagoon police" unit which will be in charge of monitoring the banks of the Ebrie.

A huge campaign to plant mangroves, the trees with long roots that sit in the water, has also been planned to bring the lagoon back to life.

The government has also earmarked 560 million CFA Francs for a Canadian-made Amphibex de-pollution boat.

If nothing is done, the pollution will become so toxic the government will seriously have to think about "an evacuation plan for Abidjan and its four million residents," Gouganou said.

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The 6th International Association of Hydrological Sciences Groundwater Quality Conference 2007 (GQ07) features a program of over 300 international scientists working in the field of groundwater quality, meeting for the first time in the Southern Hemisphere, giving local scientists unprecedented access to a wealth of international learning.

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