Senegal: Breaking the cycle of annual floods

8 October, 2013
2009, Dakar, Senegal: A girl walks through a flooded street in the Pikine department of Senegal's capital Dakar. Once again, an estimated 100,000 people have been affected by flooding across the country. Aid organizations are trying to help the government and communities break this annual cycle. Credit: IRIN/Nancy Palus
2009, Dakar, Senegal: A girl walks through a flooded street in the Pikine department of Senegal's capital Dakar. Once again, an estimated 100,000 people have been affected by flooding across the country. Aid organizations are trying to help the government and communities break this annual cycle. Credit: IRIN/Nancy Palus

With each rainy season in Senegal come reports of large-scale flooding and equally large-scale damage. This year is no different, with above average rains triggering damaging floods that are currently affecting an estimated 100,000 people. Nearly the entire south-western part of the country has been inundated: from the capital of Dakar to the regions of Mbour, Fatick, Djilor, Passy, Kaffrine, and Kaolack.

In early September, OCHA took part in a government-led assessment mission to Mbour – one of the areas worst affected by the floods.

The mission – made up of government and OCHA representatives, as well as staff from a number of other UN agencies – identified more than 500 families in Mbour who had been hit hard by floods, including some who had lost all of their belongings, food stocks and homes.

Elsewhere, hundreds of hectares of farming land have been inundated, and schools, houses and public buildings have been severely damaged. Many of those displaced have sought shelter at undamaged schools, or with host families who themselves have suffered.

Annual inundation

Sadly, this situation is a familiar one for many communities across Senegal. Flooding has become an annual event. Each year between 100,000 and 300,000 people are affected by floods that are exacerbated by poor urban planning and a lack of community awareness of what can be done to mitigate the impact of severe weather.

“It is not normal that each year, the Senegalese population has to endure the same situation,” said a participant in the assessment mission.

The national authorities are doing their best to provide help to people hit by the floods and by longer-term needs related to climate change. Government workers are draining stagnant water, and the public health authorities are carrying out epidemiological surveys to prevent and contain water-borne diseases.

Senegal and the wider Sahel region have been experiencing irregular rainfall patterns ranging from unexpected droughts to flash floods, for at least the past five years. But communities have not yet adapted their agricultural techniques and other ways of making a living to take the changing climate into account. This stand-off could increase poverty and food insecurity in the coming years.

New climate reality

“We need to change the way people think and approach agriculture in order to optimize the use of these lands,” said an official from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, who was also involved in the assessment mission.

“For example, we can suggest the use of flood-resistant seeds so that at least farmers will be able to feed their families and earn some money.”

Efforts to shift generations-old farming practices are already underway. In northern Senegal, the World Food Programme (WFP) is supporting communities to plant vegetable gardens as part of a broader effort to build a ‘green wall’ around the Sahara desert. The initiative aims to simultaneously help communities adapt to increasingly frequent droughts, whilst holding back the slow creep of desertification.

“Senegal is no stranger to floods,” said Amal Saeed, an OCHA Humanitarian Affairs Officer who participated in the Rapid Needs Assessment in Mbour. “The question is then, how do we prevent them from causing so much harm?”

OCHA and other humanitarian agencies are supporting the Government of Senegal to give a higher priority to disaster prevention and preparedness, including early warning systems, raising public awareness of flood risks, and the introduction of climate change adaptation techniques to urban and agricultural planning.

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