June 2017

Saint-Louis, Senegal: the challenge of sustainability


Saint-Louis is facing a lot of challenges. Chief among them is the dual threat posed by rising waters and overfishing. Both jeopardize the city’s very survival, its unique heritage and economy. Photo courtesy Eddy Graëff / www.saintlouisdusenegal.com

As the Ocean Conference is in full swing in New York, we mark World Ocean Day. Throughout this week, we were reminded of two essential truths: life below water, with its rich fauna and flora is precious and the livelihoods that depend on it are in danger.

This is especially true along the west coast of Africa, and especially in Senegal a country, where at least two thirds of the population lives near coastal areas which are receding at an alarming rate (on average 1 to 2 metres per year) due to rising sea levels, and rapid urbanization.

Few places illustrate the compounded effects of these predicaments with greater urgency than Saint-Louis, Senegal (also known as Ndar), the island city I am proud to call my hometown.

Saint-Louis is a unique place. It looms large in the history of Senegal and indeed that of the whole region. It was once the seat of French West Africa (from 1895 to 1902), the country’s first capital, and the birthplace of philosopher Gaston Berger. It is the very place where the Senegal river meets the Atlantic ocean. Its bountiful delta attracts thousands of migratory birds. The pristine beauty of its Langue de Barbarie, the sandy peninsula along its shores, its network of quays and its distinctive colonial architecture, explain, among other reasons, why it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000.

But Saint-Louis is facing a lot of challenges. Chief among them is the dual threat posed by rising waters and overfishing. Both jeopardize the city’s very survival, its unique heritage and economy.

Rising waters threaten the old historic city, even more so since the canal built to protect it from river’s overflow burst its banks in 2004, prompting UN Habitat to declare Saint-Louis the “African city the most at risk from rising sea levels”. Neighboring villages have already been lost to advancing tides.

Unsustainable fishing practices have translated into decreased stocks, caused by competition from pirate and large foreign vessels, at a time when the depletion of more than half of West Africa’s fisheries has reached a critical level, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. Saint-Louis’ fishermen now spend twice as much time at sea and for much more meagre hauls.

Disheartened at such dire prospects, many, especially young men, have no option but to embark upon on that perilous and improbable journey toward Europe, aboard their fishing vessels or “pirogues”, to join the growing number of migrants.

To face these complex challenges head on, an all-encompassing approach, one that places cooperation and sustainability above all needs to be implemented.

Enhanced regional cooperation mechanisms similar to those in the Caribbean and the Pacific Small Island Developing States, which set limits to the number of ships plying the waters and fishing days, will be essential to ensure the responsible exploitation of fisheries and their steady replenishment. The recent National Consultations on SDG 14, co-organized by the Government of Senegal and UNDP in Dakar on 24 May 2017, are an encouraging sign that stakeholders are taking the full measure of the situation.

As for the city itself, urban planners and environmentalists have pointed to the need for Saint-Louis to fully integrate these factors in its urban governance mechanism, just like Venice, a city Saint-Louis sometimes draws parallels to.

Sustainable fishing and sustainable urban management could very well represent Saint-Louis’ best hope. Only through regional and global cooperation can we realize SDG 14, as it is the very Sustainable Development Goal that guarantees the achievement of all others.

The stakes are immense, but it is time to act. Saint-Louis du Senegal, which was placed on the World’s Monuments Watch list in 2008 requires no less.

To quote Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: “We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors—we borrow it from our children.”

MDG-SDG blog series Abdoulaye Mar Dieye Africa Senegal

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