The Future of Resilience

With New Flood Protections in Place, Dakar Eyes Its Rainy System Warily

Two years after deadly floods, the city now appears to be better prepared.

People wade through floodwaters on the outskirts of Dakar in 2009. (Photo by AP / Rebecca Blackwell)

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The rains have finally come to Dakar and with them the fear of flooding. August 2012 is still fresh in residents’ minds, a particularly severe rainy season in which cars were sent floating down streets while furious torrents laid bare the foundations of multi-story buildings. In this city built on sand, homes were destroyed and people lost everything they had in one fell swoop. At least nine people drowned, some of them children.

The 2012 disaster was a wake-up call. Why and how had this been allowed to happen? Accusing fingers pointed at the massive roadworks all over the city, a legacy of the previous government’s plans to propel Dakar’s infrastructure into the 21st century. Six-lane highways appeared as if they were built on dykes high above densely populated neighborhoods, where the water flowed freely once the rainy season began.

Others saw the anarchic housing boom as the real culprit. Informal cities have been built throughout low-lying areas of Dakar without any protection. They get flooded every year, but the inhabitants say that there is nowhere else to go. Months after the last rains taper off, you will still find huge pools of stagnant water here – a perfect breeding ground for malaria-carrying mosquitoes.

There are drains and culverts to get rid of the excess water but they are invariably blocked with garbage and are unable to cope with the sheer volume of water coming down during the three months the rainy season lasts here.

2012 showed that inaction was no longer an option. The national government stepped in and announced a $1.8 billion nationwide emergency plan that included building new homes in safer areas, clearing and improving existing water-escape routes, buying water pumps, and building new drains, channels and culverts. It set up a task force that went about identifying the most urgent problems and the city’s most vulnerable places.

The following year, there was scant evidence of any major anti-flood activity. But 2013’s rainy season was mild and Dakar was lucky. This year, and well ahead of the rains, heavy equipment has appeared all over town. Men carrying pickaxes and hoes are splicing open sidewalks and digging trenches. Brand new drains are being installed in low-lying areas and new channels are being carved to the sea. But will it be enough?

Signs are mixed. When the rains came in earnest, in early August, local television showed the typical footage of cars struggling along streets that had received more than 160 millimeters (six inches) of rainfall in a single day. But the dramatic images of 2012 have not been repeated so far. And if fewer homes get inundated and, crucially, nobody drowns, then perhaps Dakar can declare itself on its way to tackling the rain problem.

These are challenges on a massive scale. As rains become heavier and less predictable, and cities continue to fill up with new people at an unprecedented rate, virtually every urban area on the West African coast is faced with the problems that confront Dakar. (Nearby Abidjan was hard hit this year, where large areas were deluged with heavy rains and at least 29 lives were lost.) If successful, Dakar’s approach points to a winning formula: a government leading the way, a comprehensive plan that is backed with real money, and proper timing. The work needs to begin well before the problem can manifest itself. For now, Dakarois are keeping their fingers crossed and their eyes on the sky.

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Tags: resilient citiesfloodingweatherdakar

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