Green in Pikine: Disaster risk reduction in Senegal

In my second day in Dakar, Senegal, a massive but short-lived rain-storm hit the city and suddenly we found ourselves driving in half a meter of water in the main-streets of the city. It had got hotter and hotter, increasingly humid and then simply bucketed down for about 4 hours.

Earlier that day in the same steamy heat, we had visited an Oxfam Disaster Risk Reduction Program which tries to address this flash-flooding problem directly. In the commune of Pikine, an overflow urban area of the main city of Dakar, around 1.2 million people live, the majority in ‘unauthorized’ housing, in mainly unsealed sandy streets with little or no drainage. While the government would like them not to be there, they have not been moved because there really is nowhere else to go.

Unfortunately, heavy rain has nowhere else to go either. A combination of this huge sub-city being built in a low lying area with it having a very high water table means that draining away flood-water takes months. The heavy rains they now experience have really become a problem in the last seven years, regularly affecting around 200,000 people.

So people are often find themselves living in a metre of water – sometimes more. Their latrines flood, sewage floats around them, their houses are uninhabitable on the lower floors and people have to move in with others if they have no upper floor. We saw many houses destroyed – a combination of poor construction and regular inundation.

When we arrived – before the afternoon’s rain-storm – we were confronted with several roads under a foot or more of green putrid water from the previous rains more than a month ago. A school playground under half a metre or more of the same, and school buildings effectively abandoned because of the flooding. The children simply don’t go to school now and haven’t for months in some areas.

Oxfam’s partner, EVE (Eau, Vie, Enviroment) runs a very impressive program with a small team to help the people in this city adapt and cope with this problem.  They have come up with low-cost practical solutions to address the challenges, invested in community capacity-building to mobilise local resources and used this experience to advocate an effective approach with the local and national committees for flood control. In three years they have gone from 3 districts in the commune to 8, and they are highly regarded within the line Ministries. Their methodologies are now being incorporated into national and local action plans and can be replicated across the city.

These involve working in the communities and the local authorities to mobilise volunteer labour and a limited amount of resources to backfill the flooded streets, pump out houses and public buildings.

The project employs an engineer who is supervising the cleaning and re-opening of existing drainage, and building new drains in a gravity driven network of drains to get the water out quickly. The labour also comes from the community. A contractor is hired to clean out the flooded latrines and to raise them above water level and piped into new higher septic tanks. EVE have also organised local volunteers to clear away huge amounts of rubbish to reduce the likelihood of further blockage of the drains.

Much of this work is accompanied by education from EVE on sanitation and hygiene, focussing on the needs of women.

As part of the community mobilising and advocacy, EVE creates opportunities for dialogue between the communities and the district and national officials.

The program is run by Oxfam America as part of the One Oxfam program in Senegal, funded by the Gates Foundation (around US$500,000) targeting 3000 families, although the benefit has been spread across many districts in the city. For the worst affected people they have developed a cash-transfer program to help people cope with loss of livelihood etc. It is incredibly good value for money and has a demonstration effect that will work across Senegal and the region.

Usually we think of the hazards of climate change in terms of rural flooding such as in Pakistan last year.  But it is the first example I have seen of an urban climate change adaptation program and it shows that there are affordable solutions to the challenges ahead.

Given the urban inundations that are likely from climate change as more cities experience worsening weather there is a lot to learn from Pikine.

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