From Household Actions to Community Strategies: Managing Flood Risk in Dakar, Senegal

Clara Ganemtoré, one of the first participants in SCI’s Affiliated Researcher Program (ARP), recently completed her Master’s degree in regional and urban planning at the London School of Economics. Below is the first of two posts covering the results and insights that came out of her research into Dakar, Senegal.

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I set out to Dakar in July 2012, motivated by the idea of witnessing, first hand, what “local knowledge, local action” amounts to in the context of urban disasters. Here is a short summary of my main findings, based on three weeks of meeting with community leaders, interviewing residents and attending conferences.

Residents of Pikine, a suburb of Dakar, live with the near constant threat of inundation from both annual floods and ever rising ground water levels (see “Surviving in a Floodplain” for more on the situation). To deal with this, households have developed a variety of strategies.

Some are simple, if time consuming: the daily evacuation of water using buckets or motor pumps, building walkways with sand bags or large rocks, building rudimentary open air drainage, or simply using rooftops for household chores (cooking or laundry),  for storage and as a social space.

Others require more investment of time and resources: the elevation of septic tanks, installing internal drainage systems, purchasing of motor pumps.

Then there is the temporary or permanent relocation of children or whole families when the waters prove too persistent to fight any longer.

Open air canals dug by residents, 16/07/2012

Open air canals dug by residents, 16/07/2012

Walkways made by residents, 16/07/2012

Walkways made by residents, 16/07/2012

The Dangers of Acting at the Household Level

Although initially effective, Individual and household strategies against floods are not sustainable. They can in fact increase the overall vulnerability of both individual families and whole communities.

The long hours spent evacuating water, creating passageways and elevating homes, are not only physically draining; it also takes an economic and psychological toll on households. Year round the physical, natural and financial capital of households is depleted by forces they can neither control nor escape.

Household strategies often carry a bad reputation due, in particular, to one damaging practice: “remblayage” the construction of embankments made of sand, compressed garbage and rubble to elevated homes and to fill in water holes. In extreme cases, homes damaged beyond repair are incorporated into these embankments and buried by several meters of this unsanitary mix.

Disputes between neighbors can erupt as the opposite or adjacent house finds itself not only dwarfed by the artificial elevation, but also more at risk of flooding as the stormwater flowing past House 1 (the elevated house) now naturally gravitates into House 2 (neighboring house). Furthermore the practice of building embankments has decreased the permeability of the soil, resulting in higher levels of stagnant water that last even after the rainy season is over.

While local authorities and government officials decry this strategy, the same authorities and officials provide households with the rubble needed for embankments, on top of annual donations of motor pumps. Residents and authorities know full well that the water pumped simply infiltrates the underground system and find itself, hours later, back into the very house where the water was being pumped out of in the first place!


An elevated terrace, 16/07/2012

On the left of the image, an abandoned house half buried in a mix of sand, compressed garbage and rubble. To the right, a deposit of sand for a house to soon be built over the embankment, 18/07/2012

On the left of the image, an abandoned house half buried in a mix of sand, compressed garbage and rubble. To the right, a deposit of sand for a house to soon be built over the embankment, 18/07/2012

The Positive Impact of Collective Strategies

Positive alternatives can be found, however, in collective strategies that unite multiple households. After years of unsuccessful demand for permanent solutions by the government, community based organizations (CBOs) combined efforts to create the Collectifs des Associations pour le Dévéloppement de Dheddah Thiaroye Kao (CADDTK). Since 2001 CADDTK, with the logistical support of Urbanistes Sans Frontères / urbaMONDE, has successfully mobilized public attention toward the plight of flood victims in Dakar’s suburbs. CADDTK’s efforts have crystallized into the urbaDTK project, a plan for the restructuration of DTK, after a decade of maximizing of the following strategies:

  • Creation of a consultative platform for the neighborhood
  • Lobbying government agencies
  • Local fundraising
  • Community workshops on more responsible social and environmental practices
  • Centralization of information on floods in Dakar and restructuration of the periphery
  • Solicitation of planning experts (urbaMONDE) for an assessment of the situation and formulation of an action plan
  • Hosting foreign students from universities in Geneva and France for research that can benefit the community
  • Community mapping
  • Training local volunteers on mapping techniques and GIS
  • Creation of a restructuration plan
UrbaDTK volunteers, on the field, verifying the accuracy of an initial map produced from household surveys and neighborhood chiefs, 20/07/2012

UrbaDTK volunteers, on the field, verifying the accuracy of an initial map
produced from household surveys and neighborhood chiefs, 20/07/2012

Such collective efforts have had a tremendous impact on human and social capital. A process of self-learning on urban issues and the tools and skills needed in dealing with these issues has taken place. While they may not have a degree in planning or formal work experience to be considered “experts” on flood risk management, residents of DTK have contributed to the production of an actual map of their district, real gold in a context where detailed maps of neighborhoods are impossible to find. The collective process is also facilitating negotiations over relocation of households on sites that simply cannot be recovered, sites identified as non- aedificandi.

Better Communication Between Communities and Governments

Local authorities have learned from CADDTK and urbaDTK. For the past two year, the local authority has hosted a consultative platform, established with the support of a local NGO, Eau Vie Environnement (EVE). The platform, voluntarily, brings together neighborhood chiefs (chef de quartier) and other community leaders on a weekly basis to present residents’ grievances and elaborate action plans against the floods.

The platform serves an institutional mechanism for communicating neighborhood concerns to the City of Pikine. The City, in turn, is mandated to take the appropriate actions, according to the powers vested in city hall.

But Problems Persist

But the simple act of creating institutional mechanisms to voice concerns does not lead to action. The City of Pikine does not have the administrative or financial capacity, any more than the Mayor of DTK, to provide a fitting intervention.

Unfortunately, requests made to the City of Pikine usually get deferred to national agencies where an effective response is slow to come.


About sustainablecitiesnetwork

Sustainable Cities International is a registered not-for-profit organization based in Vancouver, Canada. Operating since 1993, the mission of Sustainable Cities is to catalyze action on urban sustainability with cities around the world. We work by connecting and mobilizing people through the process of co-creating. We facilitate a thriving, international network of cities that act as urban laboratories: adopting, testing and improving on innovations. Ideas are accelerated through sharing of experience and cities are making transformational change a reality
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One Response to From Household Actions to Community Strategies: Managing Flood Risk in Dakar, Senegal

  1. Pingback: Finding a New Perspective on Urban Resilience | Sustainable Cities International blog

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