Peter Yeung is a journalist based in London. His work has appeared in The Guardian, The Independent, the BBC, the Financial Times, and other publications.
Home to nearly 300,000 people, Saint-Louis, Senegal, is seeing houses destroyed, streets flooded, and crops killed by encroaching saltwater.
Saer Diop has always known the sea to be treacherous. At the age of 13, during his first year working as a fisherman, Diop’s uncle and big brother were among five killed after their wooden pirogue boat was capsized by a vicious storm.
But in recent times, Diop, now 34, hasn’t even been safe on dry land. “One night I was asleep in bed, and a huge wave came crashing through my window,” Diop recounted, the shock of the event that happened in 2017 still reflected in his eyes.
Within a few months, the wall of his house in Senegal’s northern city Saint-Louis had collapsed. Diop is currently one of 10,000 Saint-Louis residents who have been relocated to a temporary campsite, mostly without electricity or running water, close to the city’s small airport further inland.
Saint-Louis is a UNESCO World Heritage site, a former French colonial capital known for its charming, colorful buildings. Perched at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean and at the foot of the Sahara Desert, it is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Nowhere in the city is higher than 4 meters (13 feet) above sea level, and UN-Habitat has called Saint-Louis the city most threatened by rising sea levels in the whole of Africa.
Steadily, Saint-Louis is sinking. Rising tides have led to serious coastal erosion and forced schools, mosques, and hundreds of houses to be evacuated. Saltier waters have decimated crops that once thrived on the fresh flow of the Senegal River, which divides the historic city center from the mainland. Floods have overwhelmed the dusty streets during the rainy season, sending the city’s almost 300,000 inhabitants into panic, and the arid climate brought on by a looming Sahel is testing already strained water reserves.
Scenes like these will become increasingly familiar in the future. According to the United Nations Development Program, by 2050, some 200 million people around the world could be displaced due to shoreline erosion, coastal flooding, and agricultural disruption. From Lisbon to Mumbai and Miami, cities across the planet are under threat.
Loïc Brüning, a Ph.D. candidate at Switzerland’s University of Neuchâtel, has been researching the effects of climate change on Saint-Louis since 2016. “It’s a huge problem for developing countries because they don’t have the resources to fight coastal erosion,” he said. “From Mauritania to Cameroon, all the shore is eroded. Whereas cities in the Netherlands have protected themselves because they have the knowledge and finances to do so.”
More than 100 million people live in West Africa’s coastal areas, which generate 42 percent of that region’s gross domestic product, according to the World Bank. Shorelines are receding by as much as 10 meters (33 feet) a year in some areas.
In an effort to tackle the problem, last year the World Bank announced it would provide $30 million to support climate refugees already displaced by coastal erosion in Saint-Louis, as well as those currently living within 20 meters (66 feet) of the waterfront, a zone considered at high risk of flooding. It follows a visit by Emmanuel Macron last February, in which the French president pledged €15 million ($16.8 million) to fight coastal erosion.
“Climate change has had a devastating impact on our city, destroying houses and key infrastructure,” said Amadou Mansour Faye, the mayor of Saint-Louis and Senegal’s Minister of Hydraulics and Sanitation.
But Saint-Louis has not always helped itself in the struggle to stay afloat. In 2003, authorities dug a new outlet for the Senegal River after heavy rains caused the drainage basin to reach critical levels. The channel was at first 100 meters (328 feet) long and 4 meters wide, but grew disastrously as the sea flooded into the river mouth. Today, it spans more than 2 miles across and continues to expand.
“It was a complete failure, and increased the already dramatic speed at which sea levels have risen in the last years,” said Boubou Aldiouma Sy, a professor of geography at the Gaston Berger University in Saint-Louis. “The village of Doune Baba Dieye has disappeared already, and the local populations are becoming progressively more threatened. People are afraid.”
Once a vibrant fishing village, Doune Baba Dieye now lies several feet under water. It was previously part of the Langue de Barbarie, an 18-mile-long shard of a peninsula that has shielded Saint-Louis from the Atlantic Ocean since colonial times—but its continued existence is far from certain.
Arona Fall, a guide who has worked at the nearby national park for 18 years, pointed to the gaping channel that has grown as we floated alongside the submerged village. “Climate change has brought catastrophe,” he said. “Within a decade, the Langue de Barbarie will be completely gone.”
Rare species of birds that nest in the park are being driven away, Fall added, while the seawater has also brought increasing salinity to the area, killing coconut trees that once lined the coast and allotments of cabbages, cassava, and onion further inland. Laborers can at least harvest the new-found salt reserves, but precious stocks of mullet and sardines that once populated the surrounding mangroves are dying out.
For some locals, the threat is even more immediate. Almata Diagne, 40, said her large stock of smoked fish, which the family would sell at market, was flooded during a storm earlier this year. “We lost everything,” she said, gesturing to piles of waste.
“I would move if I had the means to,” added the mother of six, who checks the weather forecast daily in preparation for dangerous weather. “But there’s nowhere else to go.”
The multifaceted quality of climate change in Saint-Louis—arising from a combination of natural processes and manmade factors—highlights the challenges that other cities around the world will face in coming years.
Legions of fishermen continue to head out to sea at dawn each day, in order to feed families across Senegal reliant on their nutritious hauls. But that life has been brought into sharp focus by rougher, volatile waters and accelerating changes to the environment.
“Before, the work was easy,” said fisherman Diop. “You would go and return; it wasn’t dangerous. Now people die all the time.”