The climate refugees from the Venice of Africa

Senegal’s Atlantic coast suffers from some of the worst erosion and rising sea levels in the world. Villages have already disappeared under the waves and hundreds of thousands of people risk becoming climate refugees.

 

The residents of Saint Louis on Senegal’s Atlantic coast are living on the edge. Rising seas and coastal erosion mean the ocean is quite literally at their doorsteps. The shore is littered with the rubble of abandoned homes, offices and workplaces slowly sinking into the sea. The main coastal track is regularly unusable and long stretches have been rebuilt. In some places the beaches wash away at the rate of two meters a year. Not for nothing is the city - home to around 230,000 inhabitants - known as the ‘Venice of Africa’.

 

For centuries, Saint Louis has been protected from the pounding Atlantic waves by the Langue de Barbarie, a narrow, 30 km peninsula at the mouth of the Senegal river, part of which is a UNESCO world heritage site. But now the low lying sandy spit of land is itself rapidly disappearing, a victim both of a changing climate and man-made problems such as illegal sand-mining and over-development. A well-intentioned but poorly designed flood relief scheme in 2003 effectively cut the peninsular in two - what started as a four meter wide channel is now more than four kilometres across.

 

Today, the southern part of the Langue de Barbarie is an island and the village of Doune Baba Dieye is under more than a metre of water. The villagers have become climate refugees, forced to live in temporary camps on the mainland. Not only have they lost their homes, but salt water has contaminated their land and driven freshwater fish away.

 

 

Launched in 2014 with €4 million from the EU, the Integrated Coastal Zone Management programme (GIZC), funded by the EU flagship initiative Global Climate Change Alliance (GCCA), aims to reverse some of the worst impacts and help the inhabitants of Saint Louis and the surrounding area become more resilient to rising sea levels.

 

senegal“We worked with NGOs and business groups to create the project,” says Dior Sidibé, GIZC Project Manager at the Ministry of the Environment. “So far we have planted at least 276 hectares of casuarina trees and 260 hectares of mangroves in the Petite Côte, Saint-Louis and Casamance areas. We have also carried out infrastructure and engineering works such as breakwaters, groynes and dykes made from rocks, and put in place a geographical information system (GIS) to track the impacts of climate change.”

 

The plight of those who live and work on the Langue de Barbarie has attracted international attention. Last year President Emmanuel Macron of France and World Bank President Jim Yong Kim together pledged a total of €42 million euros to tackle coastal erosion around Saint Louis.

 

senegal“Beach reconstruction and reforestation are very important,” says Mme Sidibé. “A healthy mangrove ecosystem plays a vital role in the conservation and regeneration of biodiversity, it helps stop salt water from spreading inland. It stabilises the coastline and slows down coastal erosion. Coastal erosion is a natural phenomena, but it exacerbated by human action. If you travel through the coastal area, you’ll see it is completely urbanised, fully developed.”

 

Dakar-based energy NGO Enda-Energie were one of the business partners in the scheme, along with the NGO Wetlands International. “It is really important to involve local people and get them enthusiastic about protecting the coastline,” says Ndèye Fatou Faye of Enda-Energie. “There is no point in developing this type of project if local people aren’t involved. That’s why we work with fishing communities on the Langue de Barbarie and the traditional fishing quarters of Saint Louis such as Guet-Ndar and Gokhou Mbathie.”

 

One of those once-thriving fishing communities was Doune Baba Dieye, now submerged under the encroaching ocean. Village chief Ameth Segne Diagne has witnessed his family and friends become climate refugees, and he mourns the loss of the mangrove forests which have protected his coastal home for generations. “Mangrove trees can live for up to 600 years,” he says. “Their roots spread wide into the ground, which enables them to cope with the weather and the salt water. They help sweeten the underground water. Mangroves are vital for this area because they are nutrition for all life.”