A Senegal City Drowning In Bad Policy And Climate Change

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.

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.

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.

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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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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