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The Planet

A Flood of Good Intentions in Senegal

by Mark Hay

April 2, 2015
Flooding in Dakar, Senegal. Photo by MyriamLouviot via Wikimedia Commons

Every year, torrential floods thrash the coastal towns of Senegal. The waters have grown increasingly erratic and disastrous since the 1970s for a host of reasons. In bad years (like 2009) they’ve caused over $100 million in damages to the capital of Dakar alone, affecting hundreds of thousands of people with property damages, waterborne diseases, and dislocation. Although Senegal has a better track record than many of its neighbors in terms of infrastructure and government works, local authorities still scramble to respond to these deluges, assembling ad hoc parties to dig emergency canals and raising last-minute funds. Yet while officials and aid workers struggle year after year to dry out waterlogged towns, a group of local architects have devised a way to turn their floodwaters into an asset, channeling them into beautifying, moneymaking communal gardens, and greening up areas that are ironically parched for the bulk of the year.

The community in question is Pikine, a suburb of Dakar with a tragic origin story: In the 1970s, the rains around Dakar had been so irregular that they’d created long-term, endemic drought conditions for thousands of people. Seeking less-parched land, numerous families relocated to a low-lying marsh, but as soon as the rains returned, these new homes went from verdant respites to fetid cesspools. Ever since, the state has focused on encouraging Pikine residents (and other Senegalese living in flood-prone regions) to migrate to new areas. But many families seem hesitant to uproot, even from waterlogged and discolored homes, to move into dubious state-funded complexes in unknown territories with unknown new problems. 

Pikine, Senegal. Photo by the United States Geological Survey via Wikimedia Commons

In response to the people’s impulse to stay put, along with the imperative to address the issues of chronic flooding, local architects devised an ingenious system to flip Pikine’s bane into benefit. Billing their plan as the “Live with Water” project, engineers and residents dug a series of drainage channels and underground canals that would divert potentially destructive floodwaters, passing them through natural filtration systems (dirt, gravel, and the like) and eventually collecting in a series of basins in public courtyards and boulevards. In these large basins, the collected waters provide year-round reservoirs to feed miniature wetlands—pools and marshy earthen patches that are now home to large fish, herons, and even basil and mint gardens, making verdant otherwise dusty lanes.

Beyond beautification, these flood-fed basins have turned into a huge economic boon for Pikine. Just by channeling floodwater efficiently, the channels allow market streets (especially hard hit in recent floods) to stay open when they might otherwise close down and cut off income streams to many families. By sparing people the need to repair their homes or the costs of treating waterborne illnesses (and associated loss of productivity), the basins also free up cash to be spent in the aforementioned markets. The harvest of fish and herbs from the basins brings in a couple dozen extra dollars a month for the local women who maintain the system, which is a fairly significant income in a cash-strapped community.

Yet for all the good it offers to Pikine, the “Live with Water” basins are part of a fragile system. Already the local maintainence crews are struggling with the stress placed on the system by the common household habit of tossing dirty water into the streets (for lack of comprehensive plumbing and sewage systems). That greywater then sloshes into the stormwater collections, which often clog with solid chunks of garbage and waste, stopping up the inaccessible underground channels and filters. Women in Pikine are trying to lead community training sessions, encouraging their fellow residents to leave solid waste in trash dumps and handle greywater judiciously. But breaking habits will be difficult—it’s been hard enough getting farmers in flood-prone lands, with serious backing, to use new water-resistant crop varieties and techniques.

A garden in Kedougou, Senegal. Photo by treesftf via Wikimedia Commons

And as for these local guardians, their job is complicated by the sporadic need for maintenance and irregular usefulness of the system, dependent as it is on the unpredictable coastal rains. So long as floods are regular, then the value of the new canals will be apparent as the gardens they feed thrive, thus incentivizing maintenance. But a string of dry years (like the ones that prompted people to move to Pikine in the first place) could make the canals and drains seem superfluous, discouraging care and allowing the system to fall apart, making it all the more difficult to repair come the next harsh and unexpected rains.

Still locals remain hopeful. They believe the big rains expected later this year will demonstrate the resilience and value of the system, prompting long-term, widespread buy-in. And if they can get successful local cooperation, maybe the model can spread beyond Pikine to other hard-hit communities. That’s a lot to hope for, given the “Living with Water” system’s nascent stage and all of the complex contingencies its success depends on. But for all the ‘what ifs’ floating around, it’s still a system worth rooting for. An example of development jujitsu, twisting a problem by its own momentum into something beneficial, rather than a mere defense, it’s the kind of simple, elegant, and inventive project the world needs more of.

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A Flood of Good Intentions in Senegal