Venice of Africa threatened by severe flooding due to climate change


Diagne, who headed Doun Baba Dieye, a village near St Louis that was flooded by the river. Here, he pulls a fishing boat towards him. Photos: dpa

St Louis, a coastal city in northern Senegal often called the "Venice of Africa," is facing dire flooding.

Bamba Diop, a local fisherman, knows only too well that devastating storm surges happen more and more frequently and are becoming stronger due to climate change.

The place where he is sitting has often been submerged by metres of water gushing in from the Atlantic.

Many people have lost all they own in the floods over the past years, says Diop. Most recently – in 2018, 2019 and 2020 – dozens of houses were swept into the sea, leaving hundreds homeless.

Last year, a dam several kilometres long was built to protect the area from storm surges on the sandy Langue de Barbarie peninsula, home to St Louis' fishing district.

The dam protects people, says Diop, adding that he is not afraid, patting the black stones of the wall. But behind him, the ruins of homes destroyed by the flooding loom like a warning.

The whole of the Senegalese coast is being eroded and sea levels are rising due to climate change, with some parts of the coastline shifting inland by up to 2m per year, according to EU estimates.

But, according to the World Bank, more than half of Senegal's population of 18 million lives along the coastline, which is some 700km long. Around 70% of the country's total economic output is concentrated there.Fishermen returning to St Louis, a city increasingly under threat from environmental change. Fishermen returning to St Louis, a city increasingly under threat from environmental change.

The air smells of salt and fish in St Louis, nestled between a river and the sea. Part of the city, a World Heritage site in northern Senegal, is located on an island. One side is on the banks of the Senegal River, while the other opens up to the Atlantic Ocean.

For Diop, whose palms are calloused from the salty water, the wood of the boats and the nylon nets, leaving is out of the question. Many others in the city of 200,000 feel similarly, despite the rising sea levels.

St Louis seems a world away from Diougop. Many of those fleeing the floods have resettled in the hot and sandy inland camp not far from the coastal city.

Some 1,500 people who became homeless due to the flooding have been housed here since 2019, says Insa Fall, a civil engineer from the Urban Development Authority.

He helped set up the 360 tents, each 18sq m to accommodate five people. In the longer term, new houses are to be built for all residents through part of a programme by the World Bank and the Senegalese government intended to better prepare St Louis for climate change and all its consequences.

But those resettled in the dusty tent town found it hard to come up with new livelihoods. "It was just too hot and too far away to sell fish. The government doesn't care enough about us," says Marieme Dieye on the beach in St Louis, surrounded by cousins and children.A West African fishing boat in St Louis, a city that faces a growing threat from flooding and storms. A West African fishing boat in St Louis, a city that faces a growing threat from flooding and storms.

She and her family left Diougop and returned home. Before the floods, they lived in 12 rooms. Now they are making do with the five that are left.

The threat to St Louis is not new, with the UN issuing warnings about the situation since the early 2000s. "There was a big international environmental conference in St Louis in 2009, but the response was slow," says Latyr Fall, a deputy mayor.The beach has a stone sea wall but the city is still looking to fund a more permanent and stable dam, he says.

Further issues contribute to the threat to St Louis, including a drainage canal built for the Senegal River in 2003, literally overnight, as a flood approached. It has greatly increased in size, disturbing the balance of salt and fresh water.

"One thing is certain: Such a canal should never have been dug without preliminary studies," says Moumar Gueye, a hydraulic engineer from St Louis.

That extra drainage channel for the river made his village Doun Baba Gueye disappear, says village chief Ahmeth Sene Diagne.

He points to branches poking up through the river's surface a few metres away from a small sandy island, where the village used to be. "My heart tightens every time I see it."

Diagne, 61, gets angry when he thinks about global warming but he is doing what he can to change it, tirelessly planting mangroves to battle erosion and hopefully claim some land back from the river. – dpa

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