The Senegal River in Saint-Louis
The Senegal River in Saint-Louis
Maureen Grisot

SAINT-LOUIS — In front of the houses in Pilote Barre, tires inexorably creep up on a shoreline that is gradually disappearing. The tide easily swallows these futile rubber fortifications along the Senegal coast. Only the large stones seem to be able to withstand the assaults of the ocean, but for how long?

For several years, the inhabitants of Gandiol — a region of about 25,000 people situated a few miles south of the scenic city of Saint-Louis — have known their villages and ways of life are in grave danger. They are the victims of a misguided decision made in October 2003 to protect Saint-Louis, which is listed as UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The government announced the digging of a four-meter hole in the “Langue de Barbarie” ("Tongue of Barbary"), a stretch of sand extending from Mauritania to the south of Saint-Louis, creating a natural barrier between the Atlantic Ocean and the Senegal River. This protection has already weakened because of sea level rises due to climate change.

The project was intended to open an unloading channel to facilitate the discharge of the river into the ocean as a way to contain the flood. But the gap has widened, separating the southern end of the peninsula from the land and effectively making it an island.

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Ruins in the "Langue de Barbarie" National Park — Photo: ho visto nina volare

“The gap spreads towards the south, and the tides in the former estuary are growing and are now reaching the villages near the coast, no longer protected by the Langue de Barbarie,” warns Amadou Abou Sy, geography professor at the Gaston Berger University in Saint-Louis. “If people do not move inland, they will be doomed.”

The scientist is outraged by the amateur nature of the government’s decision. “We dug in one night, in a haste, without any impact assessment,” he says. “Saint-Louis was threatened, but it was not the first flood of this scale. It could have been anticipated by dredging the river.”

Two villages near Gandiol have already disappeared under the water. Located in front of the giant gap, they could not resist the force of the waves. Here, the water on the shore rises 17-18 meters per year. Only the mosque of Keur Bernard recalls the existence of a 250-person hamlet. One little pink house already has its feet in the water, and within a few days it will be sunk.

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Pirogues in Saint-Louis — Photo: Manu25

Moving houses

In Doun Baba Dieye, a drowned tree is the only clue about the location of a village that was once home to 700 people. Only a few branches emerge from the water, as if asking for a desperate rescue that never happened.

Pilot Bar is the next on the list. “The river started to advance already in 2003,” remembers village chief Ishmael Diop. “Our football field disappeared in a few years.”

Over the course of 10 years, the ecosystem of the entire region has changed dramatically. The brackish water of the estuary has become completely salty. “We have seen the appearance of cockles, oysters and new species of sardines,” says Lamine Diop, engineer in fishing and aquaculture. “This is good for our economy, but it is necessary that people know what to do with it,” he says.

A village native, this young man created an association called the “Senegalese Index of Development Initiative” (INSIDE), which teaches environmental awareness and techniques for processing shellfish. “We are situated close to a national park, and there are rare species of birds, but very few villagers are aware of the richness that surrounds them,” Diop says.

Many people seek the assistance of the state to move houses that are close to the water. “We now find ourselves in the middle of the sea,” Diop complains. “Trying to save Saint-Louis, the whole Gandiol area was sacrificed.”

Tourism suffers too

There is another victim of this sudden rising sea: tourism. Jean-Jacques Bandy had been encamped in the Langue de Barbarie since 1994, offering his guests a unique panorama between the ocean and the river. Now his heavenly site is nothing but a memory.

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The "Langue de Barbarie" stretch of sand — Photo: ho visto nina volare

In February, the hotelier was forced to dismantle the site and load everything onto a barge and cross the river, far to the south. “Our camp was in a sensitive placement,” Bandy admits. “But we would never have thought it could be swallowed in a few weeks.”

This son of Saint-Louis encourages Gandiol residents to anticipate the future. “We all know that this issue is not a priority for our government, which helps us only once we have started to tackle the problem on our own. If I didn’t take the initiative to move and find another place, I would have lost everything.”

Only one member of the government tried to do something. Haidar Al-Ali, minister of fishing, arrived at the beginning of the year at the Langue de Barbarie with 60 truck tires. “What was supposed to become a mat to embrace the sand was engulfed by one tide,” he says.

He says that though coastal erosion is caused in part by global warming, it is primarily due to bad decisions made by people. And so, Saint-Louis, the former colonial capital city, has not been saved. Erosion of the Langue de Barbarie is a constant and inevitable threat.

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