Since 1987, rising sea levels have been washing away many villages along the Saloum Delta on the Atlantic coast of Senegal. Some villagers, who are now homeless, recount how one day, they were suddenly awoken in the middle of the night by the sound of water in their living room. Within minutes, their lives changed forever. They hastily packed a few belongings and ran for their lives. They thought that they would be able to go back home the following day. They were wrong. The waters did not recede, and where it did, it only moved back a few metres and stopped on the front porch of people’s homes.  

In the Saloum and beyond, it is a dire situation. Kilometre upon kilometre of collapsing homes dot the shoreline. In some parts, uprooted trees slowly decay on the sandy beaches. Beyond what is left of coastal vegetation, salinisation has destroyed what used to be thriving farming communities. Land on which families used to farm rice and vegetables is covered by visible traces of white salt. A community which used to be self-sufficient is now heavily reliant on food imports.

The ongoing coastal erosion is creating serious economic problems. Firstly, there is a growing problem of overcrowding as people further inland host the families that have lost homes. Victims of coastal erosion are also taking up the only work they can find, which is fishing. This has created a situation of overfishing and depressed the local fish market. The youth have been fleeing to urban areas in search more stable livelihoods. Some are risking everything to cross the Mediterranean into Europe.

Ousmane Dieye Sarr of Niodiore village, who used to be a fisherman, says that he has crossed the Ocean to Tenerife three times in search of a better life. Unfortunately, he was repatriated to Senegal when he got there. He keeps trying to leave because the oceans are empty:

“Every day we come back with empty nets,” he says. “We can’t continue to live like this. It is only getting harder. The state must help us find work, or at least regulate the presence of foreign fishing trawlers from Europe and China which are making the situation worse”.

Chief Mamadou Lamine Ndong of Dionware village is similarly bitter: “We live climate change on a daily basis,” he says. “We are witnessing rising sea levels, coastal erosion…and we’re invaded by the water in our homes. That is climate change. In 1987, the Dieffere was breached and it has been a nightmare ever since. It has basically placed us in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. We lose three to five metres of coastline every year.

He adds that: “We didn’t cause the rising sea levels. The industrial powers who have played a major role in global warming must step forward and play a greater role in dealing with the consequences of climate change”.

Ordinary villagers cannot be left to deal with climate change on their own. The Senegalese government, together with regional economic communities such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) as well as the African Union need to start investing more resources in climate priorities. This is a socio-economic time bomb which, if left unattended, will soon explode into a major crisis.