Can Saint-Louis be saved from the sea?

Ibrahima, Magatte and Oumar are all fishermen that were born and raised in Guet Ndar, the coastal district of Saint-Louis that is now under threat from coastal erosion. (Stefano Fasano)

“You see? Right there, two metres down!” The water is murky and choppy, but it is still possible to see the roofs of some small houses, the ruins of the village of Keur Bernard, now completely submerged by the Senegal River. Here, a few kilometres south of Saint-Louis – a city in the north of the country and the former capital of French West Africa – the ocean and the river have swallowed a number of coastal villages and are literally tearing down whatever remains.

Despite being on the UNESCO World Heritage list for its “unique landscape”, the historical city of Saint-Louis is facing a major calamity. Its coastal fishing district, Guet Ndar, is collapsing bit by bit, crushed by the ocean’s powerful waves. The result is a whole community of former fishermen that are now both homeless and jobless. Anecdotal evidence suggests that as many as 2000 people have been forced to relocate so far, but this number will only increase.

Fishing is this region’s main economic activity and the people here don’t see any hope for their future. “My brother already left a few months ago,” says 18-year-old Pape, who has fishing for a living since the age of 13, after the death of his father. “He said he wanted to go to Europe,” Pape says of his brother. “Maybe he already did.”

The consequences for the younger generation are clear: no prospects means no reason to continue with such an economically unsustainable activity in a city slowly succumbing to the sea.

More and more young Senegalese people are taking the perilous journey to Europe. Of themore than 34,000 undocumented migrants and refugees that have died trying to reach Europe, a significant proportion have come from Senegal. According to a report published in February 2018 by the European Parliament, five per cent of Senegalese people live abroad and remittances contribute 10 per cent to the country’s GDP, which is significantly more than fishing (1.8 per cent).

The causes of this looming environmental and demographic disaster are twofold: on one hand, rising temperatures caused by global warming are increasing sea levels across the world; on the other, a very specific type of coastal erosion is taking place in Saint-Louis due to a combination of natural and man-made factors, such as illegal construction, sand-mining and badly planned infrastructure.

However, the story really begins in 1986, when the Diama Dam was built to prevent the rise of salt-water along the river bed. While guaranteeing almost 120,000 hectares of cultivable land along the river banks, it also created a host of problems, from structural damage to the dam caused by accumulating water pressure to waterborne diseases caused by stagnant water.

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The ‘solution’ to the first problem was supposed to arrive in 2003, “with the creation of a five-metre wide breach in the [form of the] Langue de Barbarie [a thin peninsula dividing the Senegal River from the Atlantic Ocean]” explains Jean-Marie Dupart, a nature conservationist at the Djoudj National Bird Sanctuary in Saint Louis. Instead, the breach unleashed a nightmare.

A man-made catastrophe

It’s not easy to talk while crossing this breach. Giant waves smack against the side of our small boat. And the rift is definitely much longer than five meters. “It is going to be six kilometres at low tide,” Jean-Marie estimates. “It was a typical case of the remedy being worse than the disease; to fix a serious problem, the state created a catastrophic one,” he continues.

The breach has resulted in the loss of several kilometres of land as well as the total destruction of a number of villages, not to mention the degradation of the local ecosystem. “It enormously accelerated an already existing phenomenon, common to almost the whole west African coastline,” says Dupart.

“The current is now taking sand from places like Guet Ndar, to replace what’s missing on the breach. But the same current is taking more sand from the southern part of the same breach. It’s an endless circle,” he explains. A circle that has created an ever-expanding rift that is slowly moving southwards into the Saint-Louis coastline.

Walking along the tight beach of Guet Ndar is enough to realise the extent of the disaster. Without a sandy shore to dampen the power of the ocean, at high tide the water regularly smashes the mainland, causing buildings and other constructions to crumble under its force.

These structures were never intended to sit just a few metres away from the waves, but today this is exactly where they can be found. The result is a trail of destruction that evokes the aftermath of an earthquake, or more precisely, a tsunami.

Not a single structure on the old coastline is still standing. The local mosque has completely collapsed, and a makeshift communal prayer space has been made outside on small mats, next to the ruins. The local primary school has also been completely abandoned: the ocean made a huge hole on the side of the building facing the water, making it too dangerous for children to continue learning there. Many houses have seen some of their rooms destroyed, while others have been completely devoured by the water. Almost 300 families have already moved into the Khar Yalla tent camp, without electricity, running water or toilets, approximately seven kilometres inland from Guet Ndar.

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Evacuation plans

Not everybody decided to leave, though. Some of the families of fishermen are being hosted by neighbours and friends in the same district, but it’s only a matter of time before the water will arrive there, too. This is the reason why the Senegalese government and the World Bank, with its West Africa Coastal Areas Management Program (WACA, approved in April 2018), are working to evacuate 10,000 people from the most precarious coastal districts of the former French colonial capital, at the cost of US$30 million. According toThomson Reuters, the scheme will cover “residents within 20 metres of the water line on a 3.5 km stretch of shore”.

For now, the only available alternative is the Khar Yalla camp. However, the main deterrent from moving there, apart from its terrible sanitary conditions, is its distance from the coast line, and what is, for many families, an unaffordable cost to reach it. “Especially at night time,” explains Samba, a 31-year-old fisherman, “when there are no buses and the only way to reach the shore is by taxi”. Taxi drivers take advantage of the situation by increasing fares, which eats into the already limited profits of local fisherman.

The families who have built their lives around the fishing business in Saint-Louis are currently facing unprecedented precarity. “I don’t want my sons to leave, to emigrate. But what kind of future can they have here?” Samba confesses.

There is something new emerging from this phenomenon, however: a completely new island is forming in the middle of the breach with the sand taken from the north. This island is appears very fertile, something made apparent by the quantity of cabbages ready to be harvested and the many women engaged in the work of cultivating them.

There is only one problem: this sand comes from Saint-Louis’ coastal district, with all the waste and debris accumulated from its destroyed buildings. It also contains a huge amount of litter, mainly of discarded plastic and old fishing nets, but also of building materials and asbestos lumber, which can now be found among the cabbages. Needless to say, these cabbages are sold at Saint-Louis’ food market, along with their toxic contents.

Not all the women cultivating them are aware of the risks to their health, but even if they are, it doesn’t really matter. The answer, at the end of the day, is always the same: “We cannot live on fishing alone anymore. What else can we do?”

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