Senegal seeks long-term solution to flooding

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.

More than 1.5 million of Dakar's 2.5 million people now live in suburbs, where there are up to 10,000 people per square kilometer, making them some of the most densely populated areas in the region, Mbow said.

Diallo of the "Plan Jaxaay" said it isn't always easy to convince lifelong urbanites to leave their bustling neighborhoods for the sleepy streets of the Cite Jaxaay.

Mariyata Seck doesn't want to move. She is trading a six-bedroom home in Guediwaye for a two-bedroom row house in Jaxaay. She will live there with eight of her children, while her grown sons will have to rent rooms closer to the city. This is just one of many complaints against the initiative since it was launched amid controversy in 2006. Some flood victims thought the state was stealing their land, while others complained the Cite Jaxaay was too far out for commuters.

Still, the waiting room at the group's headquarters is almost full of people ready to sign their contracts and get keys to their new, dry homes. More people wait outside the building, hoping to get their names on the list.

As Pathe Cisse signs his contract, he says he can't find the words to express his joy, and his relief. Like Seck, Cisse moved to the lowlands of Guediwaye 20 years ago, never dreaming the water would return.

In 2005, knee-deep water invaded the home where he lived with his two wives and eight of his 19 children. The family's belongings were ruined. The children suffered from malaria, bronchitis and rashes. That year, the family was forced to abandon the house they owned free and clear and begin renting an apartment for $450 a month, a substantial chunk of Cisse's teacher's salary.

Now, he has 20 years to pay off his new home in Cite Jaxaay at about $60 a month. The state subsidizes the remaining three quarters of the cost.

"We have suffered so much, and there are so many people still living in absolutely dreadful situations, just trying to get by," Cisse said. "I'd rather live out in the bush than underwater."