Water as a Threat: Dakar’s Vulnerability to Flooding

Floods affect “900,000 people affected in West Africa every year and more than 2 million in the whole continent” (Bottazzi et al., 2018). Like many African countries, Senegal has experienced more episodes of flooding in the last decades, while their severity and recurrence particularly rose since 2005. In 2008, floods afflicted 264,000 Senegalese families and damaged many infrastructures.
Since the concentration of population and infrastructure implies higher flood exposure, flood management is a key challenges in urban areas. Located on the Cap-Vert peninsula on the Atlantic coast, Dakar is particularly vulnerable. In 2009, floods affected one third of the population in Pikine, the most populous municipality of the metropolitan region of Dakar.

Although climate change and precipitations are obviously not helping, floods are mainly due to the inadequacy of Dakar’s urban planning. As a result of ” rapid urbanisation, urban sprawl beyond the authorities control and the lack of affordable land” (Cissé & Sèye, 2015), low-income people are forced to settle in marginal and vulnerable areas. In fact, flooding is not always an obstacle to households occupying high-risk neighbourhoods and occupation in Dakar’s cheap flood-prone lands has even gone up in last years.

The Senegalese government mobilized major investment for large-scale drainage infrastructure and resettlement sites for affected households. But if these measures are important, they remain insufficient.
Indeed, these initiatives adopt a top-down approach and are often not adapted to local contexts, as they ” fail to consider the everyday adaptation strategies of local stakeholders” (Bottazzi et al., 2019). Furthermore, people with low and irregular income are usually reluctant to move to the resettlement areas where they will likely have less space in their house, will not be able to access bank loans to build additional rooms nor pay the cost of being rehoused.

Floods are a major cause of material destruction, but they also affect economic activities thus increasing economic vulnerability. Moreover, dealing with flooding means less time for income-generating activities. Of course, houses are the most affected by flooding, while they also greatly suffer from the rain.

According to the 2012 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, vulnerability refers to “the propensity or predisposition to be adversely affected”. More precisely, it is comprised by exposure to hazard and the inability to cope with any damage caused by those hazards. The residents of low-income neighbourhoods are therefore disproportionately exposed due to inherent vulnerability in under-serviced urban areas.

In the absence or inefficiency of basic protective infrastructure and support from the state, the urban poor rely on informal and community-based arrangements for risk reduction. According to Abdou Salam Fall, the poor are “resourceful people always in the process of tinkering away to survive” (Cissé & Sèye, 2015). Indeed, local residents of the Yembeul Nord municipality of Pikine, one of Dakar’s low-income suburbs, developed strategies in response to floods and their impacts (sandbags or rubble to absorb stagnant water or raise houses, manually remove water, pump, drain, repair or improve buildings).

Launched in 2013, the “Live with Water” project aims to improved the flood resilience of vulnerable populations in Dakar suburbs. Although some impacts could be rapidly observed by physically protecting households from water with drainage infrastructure, “most people did not feel that they were able to anticipate flood risk” adequately (Bottazzi et al., 2018). As a matter of fact, projects like the LWW program tend to focus on short-term impacts through increased absorptive capacity, while adaptive and anticipatory abilities are not addressed.

Instead of treating water as a threat, maybe we should work with it in order to effectively adapt and anticipate. This is at least what Koen Olthuis thinks. The founder of Waterstudio is trying to improve living standards in waterside slums by providing fundamental services (education, sanitation, power) in shipping containers made of waste plastic bottles. These “city apps” float and are easy to install and launch. They are therefore a good investment for governments as well as for private investors who are ordinarily reluctant to invest in flood plains.

Nonetheless, the “crisis in solid waste management” (Šoltésová, 2017) I talked about in my previous post must be addressed as a priority, especially regarding flooding. “Nature and society are in this way combined to form an urban political ecology, a hybrid, an urban cyborg that combines the powers of nature” and the social fabric (Swyngedouw, 2006). Indeed, the poor waste management in Dakar results in large amounts of trash in the streets and nature that, with flooding, inevitably pollute water and produce environmental degradation.

2 thoughts on “Water as a Threat: Dakar’s Vulnerability to Flooding

  1. This is an interesting post and Dakar clearly faces a huge challenge in how to deal with the threat of flooding, especially among its most vulnerable communities. I think the idea of “living with water” and adapting their current lifestyle to accept and benefit from the water they are faced with, rather than see it as a threat, is crucial. The City Apps project seems like a really good solution to provide slum residents with vital services despite their positioning in flood plains. I was aware of cities in developed countries adapting to floodwater in creative ways — such as Copenhagen’s cloudburst plan and ‘sponge cities’ in China — but I hadn’t come across any examples of this in slums so this was a really interesting point.


  2. Hi, I was particularly interested in this issue as flood exposure is also the main resilience issue in Metro Manila. Cities exposed to floods seem to share many similarities: in Manila, flood exposure is also directly linked to urban sprawl as the most vulnerable are increasingly pushed away and forced to settle on hazardous land. Moreover, solid waste management is also key to reducing the impact of floods in Manila, as you can read in my blogpost (https://geog0062urban.science.blog/2020/03/01/turning-dream-to-nightmare-human-security-and-the-mismanagement-of-the-pasig-river/): following Typhoon Ketsana in 2009, an outbreak of leptospirosis affected large sections of the population forced to wade through water contaminated by waste in Manila.
    Therefore, I believe Manila and Dakar (and all cities exposed to floods) could benefit from learning from each other under Jennifer Robinson’s (a reknowned Professor of our cherished UCL Geography department) approach to comparative urbanism. Initiatives such as the City Apps would surely inspire policy-makers in Manila. In turn, Manila could be an inspiration for bottom-up approaches to flood-resilience policy-making. In my article, I show how Manila’s culture of civil society participation in policy-making can bring up innovative people-centered solutions involving the informal community.


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