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.