Saint-Louis, the former French colonial capital of Senegal, lies at the mouth of the Senegal River on the Atlantic Ocean. The island city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is home to 230,000 people, all of whom live under the constant stress of a permanent flood alert as sea levels continue to rise. Flooding has already displaced 10,000 residents within this “Venice of Africa,” according to World Bank estimates.
Saint-Louis’s current predicament is quite rightly looked to as a predictor of what awaits thousands of coastal cities around the globe. Yet Mangoné Diagne, an official from Senegal’s regional division of the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development, noted that Saint-Louis’s predicament was created “both by nature and by men”. In 2003, heavy rainfall caused the Senegal River to rise dramatically, threatening to flood Saint-Louis. The government dug a 4-meter-wide breach to slow down the river’s rise, which worked briefly but has resulted in unintended consequences. The breach filled and expanded to 6 kilometers, cutting off a portion of Langue de Barbarie, a sandy strip of land that acts as a buffer against the sea, turning it into an island.
The resulting topographic change flooded nearby villages and upset the local ecosystem. Saltwater from the Atlantic crept into the new space and killed off the coconut and mangrove trees that also protected the shoreline. The higher salinity drove away native bird and fish species, which forced communities like the Lebou, who have fished for centuries, to either venture into waters bordering Mauritania, which is far more dangerous and illegal, or lose their livelihood.
Villages in the vicinity of Langue de Barbarie have all suffered from flooding exacerbated by climate change, displacing hundreds and damaging vital infrastructure. Although the World Bank and France have pledged money to combat the effects of climate change in Saint-Louis and to build a sea wall, it has not made a meaningful difference.