The former capital of Senegal on the front line against rising waters

Saint-Louis (Senegal) (AFP)

In the city of Saint-Louis, in northern Senegal, excavators tear up the beach to deposit giant blocks of basalt, in a last-minute effort to keep the sea at bay.

Once the work is completed, a dike will stretch for kilometers along the coastline of the former capital of this West African country, famous for its colonial-era architecture.

Dreadful warnings about the risk of sea level rise due to climate change are already a grim reality in St. Louis, where waterfront residents are abandoning their homes as the Atlantic Ocean advances.

But the dike is a stopgap. And some are skeptical about the possibility of saving the historic city of 237,000 inhabitants.

Saint-Louis has “already been wiped off the map,” said Boubou Aldiouma Sy, professor of geography at the city’s Gaston Berger University.

Its unique position – near the mouth of the Senegal River, with both the swollen waterway and the ocean on its banks – means its long-term existence has always been in doubt, he said.

Saint-Louis sits near the mouth of the Senegal River, with both the swollen waterway and the Atlantic Ocean on its shores JOHN WESSELS AFP

“The role of man is to speed up the process,” Sy added.

Founded by the French on an island in the mid-17th century, Saint-Louis has become a hub for European traders, playing an important economic and cultural role in the region.

It served as the capital of the French colony of Senegal until the capital moved to Dakar shortly before Senegal gained independence in 1960.

From the original island, the town spread out on both sides, over a long, thin strip of sandy land known as the Langue de Barbarie to the west and to the east on the mainland.

Its colorful, historic balcony houses and two-story villas have helped make the island a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the town hosts a renowned annual jazz festival.

But Saint-Louis rises only a few meters above sea level.

Saint-Louis was the capital of the French colony of Senegal and its colonial-era architecture helped make the island a UNESCO World Heritage Site
Saint-Louis was the capital of the French colony of Senegal and its colonial-era architecture helped make the island a UNESCO World Heritage Site SEYLLOU DIALLO AFP / File

Long a problem, flooding has become more severe in areas such as Guet Ndar, a crowded fishing district where brightly painted wooden canoes line the shore.

Coastal erosion is also eating away at the coastline.

Many residents had no choice but to move to an internally displaced persons camp as their homes were engulfed by the raging seas, erosion and the collapsing soil beneath them.

The maritime barrier is Senegal’s attempt to deal with the aggravating problems.

But experts point out that while it can protect against abnormal surges, it cannot stop rising waters.

– Terrors of a night –

Mareme Gueye, a resident of Guet Ndar, told AFP that all the suffering she has experienced since childhood “has been caused by the sea”.

Six of the seven rooms in his house are gone, washed away by the ocean.

In her only remaining room, she removed the door to make sure no one was stuck inside during the flooding.

Destructive flooding has escalated since 2010, according to the 43-year-old, who said she could no longer sleep at night for fear of the stormy waters.

Mareme Gueye, 43, says six of the seven rooms in her house are missing, washed away by the ocean
Mareme Gueye, 43, says six of the seven rooms in her house are missing, washed away by the ocean JOHN WESSELS AFP

In one heartbreaking case, floodwaters swept her parents out of her home and dragged them out to sea.

They miraculously survived.

Free construction in Saint-Louis – known as Ndar in the local Wolof language – has compounded coastal erosion.

The city is a particularly acute example of problems common to several West African coastal metropolises, Sy said, citing Côte d’Ivoire’s main city and economic center, Abidjan, or the capital of Guinea Conakry.

Erosion is pushing back the coastline by about 1.8 meters (yards) per year across the region, according to a 2019 report from the World Meteorological Organization.

Likewise, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said this year that sea level on the West African coast is rising from 3.5 to four millimeters (0.14 and 0, 16 inches) per year.

The colossal sea barrier will stretch 3.6 kilometers (2.2 miles) along the coast
The colossal sea barrier will stretch 3.6 kilometers (2.2 miles) along the coast JOHN WESSELS AFP

With its unique route surrounded by water, Saint-Louis is on the front line.

Almost two decades ago, an unsuccessful attempt to control flooding after heavy rains saw authorities widening a water channel on the Langue de Barbarie between the river and the sea.

But from its first four meters, the canal unexpectedly grew to several kilometers wide as the salty Atlantic water poured into the river, further disrupting the natural order of things and transforming the landscape.

– Camps for displaced people –

The invading seas have already caused serious damage.

The 2017 and 2018 floods left more than 3,200 people homeless – around 1,500 of them now live in an IDP camp in Djougop, further inland.

The disaster prompted Senegal to start construction of the dike in 2019, partially funded by France.

The 2017 and 2018 floods left more than 3,200 people homeless - around 1,500 of them now live in an IDP camp in Djougop, further inland
The 2017 and 2018 floods left more than 3,200 people homeless – around 1,500 of them now live in an IDP camp in Djougop, further inland JOHN WESSELS AFP

The project, worth around 100 million euros ($ 117 million), also includes a relocation program.

Construction is expected to be completed by the end of this year, when the colossal barrier will stretch 3.6 kilometers (2.2 miles) along the coast.

However, the project also requires demolitions of houses in a 20 meter wide strip behind the barrier.

Between 10,000 and 15,000 people in total are expected to be uprooted, said Mandaw Gueye, an official working on the project.

Many residents had no choice but to move to an internally displaced persons camp as their homes were engulfed by raging seas, coastal erosion and the collapsing soil beneath them.
Many residents had no choice but to move to an internally displaced persons camp as their homes were engulfed by raging seas, coastal erosion and the collapsing soil beneath them. JOHN WESSELS AFP

Some will end up in Djougop and neighboring neighborhoods where the World Bank is co-financing the construction of 600 housing units, he said.

Other project officials stressed that the displaced would be compensated.

But residents seem decidedly unenthusiastic about Djougop – a bland expanse of blue-roofed bungalows built in the desert, far from the sea.

Their seaside fishing district is poor and one of Africa’s most densely populated urban areas, but stories of the plight of those already displaced have been circulating.

Sea barrier is short-term emergency measure - government says it is exploring more sustainable solutions
Sea barrier is short-term emergency measure – government says it is exploring more sustainable solutions JOHN WESSELS AFP

The fishermen of Djougop, whose livelihoods are already physically demanding, have to get up even earlier in the morning to reach the distant sea.

The fishermen who remained in Guet Ndar often leave without them.

“They are very tired,” said Thiane Fall, a 65-year-old resident.

– ‘Human ingenuity’ –

The sea barrier is a short-term emergency measure and is not even designed to be waterproof.

The government says it is looking at more sustainable solutions.

Experts point out that while the sea wall can protect against abnormal surges, it cannot stop the rising sea
Experts point out that while the sea wall can protect against abnormal surges, it cannot stop the rising sea JOHN WESSELS AFP

Sy, the geographer, suggested structures called groynes, built perpendicular to the shore, which force sediment to settle in a way that reverses coastal erosion.

Making sure coastal areas are lush with plant life can also slow the trend.

Alioune Badara Diop, one of the deputies to the mayor of Saint-Louis, said these options remained viable.

But the government did not prosecute them initially because of their “relatively high cost,” he said.

With its unique route surrounded by water, Saint-Louis is on the front line against rising sea levels and coastal erosion.
With its unique route surrounded by water, Saint-Louis is on the front line against rising sea levels and coastal erosion. JOHN WESSELS AFP

He is not, however, convinced that his town has reached its end, highlighting Senegal’s nascent oil and gas sector and all of its potential.

“We will have the means, and human ingenuity will allow us to build structures that will protect the coast,” said Diop.

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