West Africa: Urban surge feeds flooding

Source(s): The New Humanitarian

Dakar - Mamadou Ndiaye wades across his flooded house as his children bail out dirty water bucket by bucket. He and his family are among many thousands of Senegalese whose homes have been under water for days.

Thirty years ago when Ndiaye moved to Guédiawaye, 26km outside the city centre of the capital Dakar, the land was dry and cheap. Now residents of this densely populated suburb endure floods every rainy season.

Recurrent flooding in towns and cities across West Africa is more about people than rains, according to Professor Cheikh Mbow at the Institute of Environmental Sciences at the University of Dakar, who studies the impact of climate variability on urban flood risk. The region’s annual flooding reflects explosive population growth in the cities, poverty and poor urban management, he said.

“The rural poor come and settle on unsuitable land and are then exposed to flooding and other hazards like landslides and industrial risks.”

West Africa’s population is expected to grow at an average rate of 2.4 percent from between 2005 and 2010, and the population is likely to more than double from 293 million in 2008 to 617 million in 2050, according to the UN Population Fund, most of this growth in urban areas.

Amid this year’s flooding in West Africa, which the UN says has killed at least 160 people to date, observers repeatedly point to the problem of urban congestion. In Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown the main cause of recent flooding was “indiscriminate building” in green belt zones [undeveloped land] according to national disaster management head, Mary Kamara.

In northern Nigerian cities overpopulation has people building homes on waterways, with natural drainage systems becoming blocked by rubbish, according to Hassan Musa, an environmentalist at Bayero University in the northern city of Kano.

“In some cases when people build houses on waterways and the government hardly restrains them, this leads to a cycle of flooding, destruction and sometimes death,” Musa told IRIN.

Dakar: No urban plan

Fifty years ago Dakar consisted of a triangular peninsula surrounded by wetlands, known as “cap vert.” The once-green surroundings are now mostly grey, as a 1970s and 1980s Sahel-wide drought pushed rural dwellers to settle in the flood-prone depressions on the city’s outskirts in spite of regulations outlawing construction.

“The State has not really carried out a strong policy to ban occupancy of this unsuitable land," said Mbow. Now 95 percent of the Dakar region, which includes the districts of Pikine, Rufisque and Guédiawaye, is covered with buildings and roads that block natural waterways and basins.

Malick Faye, an urban planner at Dakar’s Regional Council, said the severely flooded neighbourhood of Wakhinane in Guédiawaye – where people have built at the level of the water table – is a good example of the wider problem.

“The water table used to be very low, but now that the rains have come back the water has returned to its natural level. So now all you need is 5mm of rain for it to flood,” he told IRIN.

While emergency response teams pump water from Dakar’s flooded neighbourhoods, experts agree that relocating people is the only solution.

“You can never fight the path of the water,” said the Mbow. “As you pump, the aquifer restores the water level. You have to take the people out and make sure others will not replace them.”

New cities


In response to devastating floods in Dakar in 2005 the government launched a housing scheme, ‘Plan Jaxaay’, aiming to relocate flood victims to an area 25km east of the capital.

The government has built 1,793 two-bedroom houses of a planned 3,000, as well as three primary schools, a technical college, a nursery school and a police station.

Cité Jaxaay resident Aliou Ba, a retired schoolteacher, is pleased with his new house. “I prefer living out in the sticks to living under water in the city,” he said. "The only problem is there is no electricity or running water yet.”

Chimère Diallo, field coordinator of Plan Jaxaay, said relocating 3,000 families is a good start, but it is not enough given the enormous scale of Senegal’s housing problem.

Some 1.6 million people live in Dakar’s suburbs, with 10,000 per square kilometre in some areas, according to Mbow.

The relocation task is enormous, said the regional council’s Faye. “If you want to move 2,000 families you must create a new city…with all the services and infrastructure required – electricity, water, drainage systems. This is an enormous task….Plan Jaxaay is a good thing. But we cannot build houses for everyone in a year.”

Frustration over the lack of services and dire conditions in Dakar’s suburbs recently boiled over into sreet protests.

Guédiawaye resident Ndiaye said: “We live in atrocious conditions. The flooding is a problem the government could solve. But they have forgotten us. It is that simple. We cannot count on our politicians. We can count only on ourselves.”

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