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Senegal seeks long-term solution to flooding

Families are being moved from flood-prone suburbs to a new settlement 15 miles east of Dakar.

DAKAR, Senegal — Moving day. Mariyata Seck looks out at the lake that was once her neighborhood in Guediwaye. All of her belongings are piled on the soggy earth behind her and a red, spray-painted X marks her home of more than 20 years for demolition.

Seck is one of 3,000 families being moved from flood-prone areas in Dakar's crowded suburbs to a new settlement 15 miles east of the city.

The lake in front of her home is actually a basin to collect and pump excess water into the sea. It was built as part of Senegal's resettlement initiative, the "Plan Jaxaay," which means eagle in Wolof. Its premise is simple: You can't fight the water, so you have to move the people out.

Though experts applaud the "Plan Jaxaay" as a long-term solution to the floods devastating Dakar's suburbs each year, the plan is far from perfect and those on the ground worry that it may be too little, too late.

The pilot program is initially targeting just a handful of the most desperate neighborhoods, but it has so far proven challenging and progress has been slow. This year alone, floods have affected more than 100,000 people in the capital.

Nearly 1,800 of the 3,000 homes in the new Cite Jaxaay are finished, and the about 20,000 people who have been moved there in the past four years seem but a drop in the bucket.

Chimere Diallo, field coordinator for the "Plan Jaxaay," said the 3,000 families slated to be housed by the end of 2010 is a good start, but once this first phase is done, there could be as many as 15,000 more families that need to be moved.

Senegal activated a $4.5 million emergency response plan in late August to pump water from flooded zones, but experts like Cheikh Mbow, an urban geographer at Dakar's Cheikh Ante Diop University, say flooding is more about people than water.

“Water reveals the inconsistencies of poor urban management,” Mbow said. "You can never fight the water where it used to go. You just have to take the people out and be sure that others will not replace them."

A prolonged drought in the 1970s and 1980s pushed rural dwellers to the capital city and dried up the lowlands on Dakar's outskirts. Poor newcomers built there, and the state did not consistently ban occupation of these lands, Mbow said. The suburban population has only swelled in the past decade, as rising housing costs in the capital have pushed residents further out from the center.