Flooding in Dakar

I got home to Dakar to find torrential rain, with thunderstorms several times a day and water rushing down the streets like mini rivers. Thankfully I live in a well-drained area, so apart from the water coming through a leak in the roof, I’m not in too much danger.

But out in the northern suburbs I think close to a million people are affected in one way or another by flooding – and the President has decided to prolong his holiday in France. Mind you, there wouldn’t really be much he could do if he came back. I did a bit of research on this area earlier in the year because I had to do an Open University assignment related to flooding. This is roughly what I found.

Running through the middle of the big northern suburbs of Pikine and Guediawaye where the biggest problems are is the Niayes valley, a low-lying area of dunes and basins where the water table is in places only a couple of metres below the surface. It is effectively a dried-out river bed.

It used to be predominantly a market-gardening area, supplying Dakar with its fruit and vegetables, but with droughts hitting livelihoods in the rural areas, and unsightly shanty towns being cleared from the centre of Dakar, the population grew rapidly in the 1970s and ‘80s. It evolved from a series of villages to a vast urban sprawl of over a million inhabitants (some three-quarters of whom didn’t even acquire a building permit for their houses - there is not much respect for laws here, especially when they are expensive to comply with and when the government does not have the power to enforce them). The government’s 1967 Dakar Urban Plan banned construction in wetland zones such as this, because of the risk of flooding (the droughts were not going to last forever), but this was not properly enforced either.

But all the time the flood risk was worsening. Due to the ‘informal’ nature of the settlement, there were no drainage channels built in. There were no sanitation facilities, and household waste was dumped in the streets, blocking natural drainage channels so there would be nowhere for rainwater to go. So when the rains returned – in 2001, 2005, 2007, 2008 and again this year – thousands of homes were flooded as well as schools and market-places. Some had families elsewhere to look after them, but many had to stay, moving upstairs if they were lucky enough to have one, and building makeshift flood defences out of sand and rubbish. The water table is now so high that even if you pump out the water, more just comes up out of the ground.

In 2008 the government responded to the emergency by directing $650,000 towards pumping water out of submerged neighbourhoods, the International Federation of the Red Cross delivered emergency supplies to families sheltering in schools, and other NGOs such as Islamic Relief delivered food parcels. However the emergency money ran out in a matter of just days, after which the pumps sat idle because there were no funds to buy fuel for them.

In Senegal, very few householders buy insurance. Many don’t know such cover exists, and those that do are unlikely to take it up, given the level of poverty. There is also a pervasive sense of fatalism, encapsulated by the often heard “Insh’allah” meaning “if God wills it”. This particular interpretation of Islam leads the residents to do far less than one might expect to help mitigate the flood risk. No one makes any attempt to clean up the rubbish, for example, that all agree is part of the problem.

What about local government? Well a regional flood management commission was set up, and in 2005 undertook to construct (and then maintain) flood protection and sanitation facilities, at a cost of $8.2m, and to procure equipment such as pumps, at a cost of some $30,000. By August 2008 the only progress was the purchase and installation of a number of pumps. In reality, pumping out floodwater is more or less all the local authorities can afford.

At national government level, an ambitious plan was drawn up following the 2005 floods to build new accommodation for the relocation of 4,000 affected families – the ones with legal land title and building permits. Plan Jaxaay was to cost the government $104 million. But they don’t have the money either. Part of the financing was diverted from a budget originally intended to fund elections (which therefore had to be postponed in the face of substantial opposition), but when officials tried to draw down the funds they found that these had already been spent on something else. A year later when the floods came again, only empty fields marked the Plan Jaxaay site. I’ve heard that only around 1,500 families have been moved so far, and that this year part of that site was flooded too.

So why do people still live there? Well, most of them have no choice. No-one will buy the houses in view of the flooding and the lack of legal papers, and few have the financial means to start over again. Besides, their friends and family are there – it is their home.

I visited Pikine in April this year, and went to a couple of houses, getting to one across a trail of sandbags laid through the green, foul-smelling, mosquito-infested floodwaters that still remained six months after the flooding of October 2008. It is not a pretty place. Even before the floodwaters added to the mess, it was a mixture of cement block houses and piles of rubbish. But of course our Western appreciation of pretty views and nice green space is one borne out of relative luxury. Here the environment is seen as a source of resources to be exploited in the pursuit of survival. And Pikine is cheap - $15 a month to rent a single room, compared with $50+ anywhere else. So people still come, and still build. And pray that “if God wills it” the floods will not return next year.

The holiday bit

Although my trip to Kenya was really about volunteer work, there were short bursts of holiday in there too. For example the drive to the inland community went through Tsavo West National Park (where I saw giraffes, kudus, elephants and an ostrich), and I spent a weekend visiting Shimba Hills National Park (where I saw buffalo, sable antelope, and more giraffes, as well as a pair of African wood owls). A late afternoon visit to a lodge in Tsavo West also added more elephants, hippos, crocodiles and a zebra to the list.

There’s not much to say about it really, as you all know what elephants, hippos, etc look like, but an excuse to post a couple of photos here (and a nice yellow-billed stork at the end).

I also got to see my Mum, of course, spending a weekend with her when the rest of the volunteers were off getting drunk together. In fact they seemed to spend a lot of their time getting drunk, and swearing, and falling about laughing about farting. Are all young people like that nowadays?? They were nice people, but showed no respect at all for the sensitivities of those around them (Kenyans generally being polite, respectful, well-mannered people who I’m certain will have been horrified by such behaviour) and at times I actually felt embarrassed to be with them.

Finally my five weeks were over however, and GVI drove me to Mombasa airport. I arrived many hours before my flight but decided it wasn’t worth paying $30 to transfer to an earlier one.

Big mistake! Waiting in the departure lounge an hour before scheduled take-off, I was approached by an airline representative to be told the flight had been delayed by three hours to 11pm. Which would mean arriving in Nairobi after midnight. Conscious of the city’s reputation, I asked her if it wasn’t dangerous for me to take a taxi to my hotel at such an hour. She told me it was dangerous, so I asked her what I should do. “Pray” she said.

Finally on the plane, I relayed this conversation to the man sitting next to me. He immediately offered to transfer some credit to my phone so that I could contact my hotel and/or a taxi company, but then also offered to give me a lift to my hotel. I decided that he was lower risk than a random taxi at that time of night, and sure enough he (in fact his driver) took me to my hotel. I didn’t even need the phone credit (which he would not accept payment for). It was very typical Africa – things appear to have gone wrong and you are feeling miserable about it, then something good turns up, usually due to the kindness of African people.

More community work

I had a second week of community work, this time in a village in the dry, dusty interior near Tsavo West. Former poachers, the community of Mahandakini had been persuaded by the World Society for the Protection of Animals that there were better ways of making a living than hunting giraffes to sell as bushmeat, and GVI was trying to help them develop other ways of making a living.

The community already grow cotton, but as raw cotton prices are so low, they don't really make money from it. GVI (through its volunteers) is trying to raise money to buy spinning machines for the village, and is teaching them to make cotton products to sell to tourist lodges and perhaps to export to "fair trade" shops in the UK. We were there to teach them how to turn woven cotton into cushion covers, as well as advising on the suitability of different designs using locally available natural dyes.

So I found myself measuring, cutting and pinning up cotton, trying to explain how to calculate the amount of material to allow for the overlap (the bit where the cushion goes in) and other things I had known nothing about until this week. I also watched the women turn tree bark into a natural dye (here they are straining the dye through a plastic tea-strainer on the left), and fold and tie the cotton before dying it so as to produce patterns on the material. I hadn't much looked forward to this as I didn't see how I could contribute anything useful, but in fact with some preparation it went well and I enjoyed it. The sample finished product that we managed to prepare during the week was of a surprisingly high quality.

Living conditions there were basic, as we slept in our sleeping bags on the concrete floor of a disused building, cooked over a fire, and got to "wash" only once in the week when we visited a natural spring and all jumped in for a swim.

By the end of the week we (and all of our clothes and sleeping bags) were brown from the dust. I actually found myself looking forward to a "shower" from a bucket of seawater back at base!

Forest and Community work

Continuing with my volunteer stint in Kenya, I moved over to Shimoni peninsula for a week of work in the forest. The focus was to collect data on the resident Angolan black and white colobus monkeys, but a lot of time was also spent collecting data on the habitat, including on other mammals, on butterflies and birds, and on the vegetation.

We spent long hours walking along transects in the forest – under hanging branches and vines, over fallen logs, and through thorny bushes – and I loved every minute of it, despite the collection of cuts and bruises I accumulated. We saw quite a few colobus as well as Sykes monkeys and olive baboons, bushbabies, tiny suni antelopes, a giant pouched rat, and a few birds.

The best bit was never knowing what you might see next (compared to the marine work where it was dolphins and more dolphins…). The worst bit was seeing the frightening rate of deforestation, as every day we saw or heard people cutting down trees, and one day saw an enormous, newly constructed charcoal pit – illegal, but there is no-one with the resources to enforce the rules.

We also spent a week in Shimoni doing community work. This was supposed to involve teaching English, but as school had not restarted we were allocated to painting a school classroom instead. I have no artistic abilities, but was so relieved to get out of the teaching, having been dreading the thought of standing up in front of a room full of children, that I was happy to be asked to paint pictures to illustrate the numbers 3 – 7!