Dakar floods shows how social ties can help, hinder disaster management

  • By Kathryn M. Werntz, TRF
  • 02/09/2015

Four days after the storm, flood water levels still visible on walls in N'Gor Village, Dakar, Senegal/ Jürgen Fauth


This blog is personal opinion and its views in no way reflect those of Thomson Reuters Foundation or the BRACED programme.

The torrential rains in Senegal last weekend were deafening – and record-breaking. More water fell in two hours than over a 45-day average one radio station reported. The first sound I heard after the downpour eased was neighbours bucketing water out of their homes in my urban village of N’gor in Senegal’s capital city of Dakar.

Indoor water levels were knee-high, the rain having rushed in from saturated sandy paths and poured off roofs poorly designed for drainage.

“The people bucket out the water – but where does it go?” asks Mamadou Ndiaye, community delegate in Pikine village, a Dakar suburb prone to flooding. “It just ends up in someone else’s house eventually, or the school, or the pharmacy or an animal pen.”

Ndiaye is right, but what other recourse do people have when there’s no pump available, and no government agency or NGO coming to save you?

Residents of Pikine, and in my village N’gor, go willingly to one another’s houses to help bail out the worst-hit. It shows the strong sense of solidarity in Senegalese culture - part of a social safety net that may be both helping and hurting people trying to cope with climate disasters.

“People know whose house is badly flooded and where to go to help bucket because of the ‘griot’,” explains Pikine resident Mariama Diallo. In West Africa, griots are member of the society who are responsible for recounting family history, telling stories and announcing important information. They often do this through song and poetry.


The griots in Pikine may have helped people deal with the recent flooding, but some residents were spared altogether, thanks to a new flood management project which both Ndiaye and Diallo work on.

To prepare for this year’s rainy season, the Vivre avec l'eau | Live with water project installed a pilot drainage system in Pikine which prevents rain from flooding buildings, roads and the market. The runoff is redirected and captured in low-lying natural basins which replenish the village water supply.

Though the latest downpour demonstrated the project’s technical success, it would not work without certain social institutions, too.

The Vivre avec l'eau | Live with water project establishes committees that educate people on how to use the drainage system, and how to develop and implement contingency plans in case it fails. Gardens created around the basins also require shared management and provide income for residents.


Standing on a rooftop in Pikine after the record-breaking rainfall, it was hard to spot any flood damage as all seemed calm and three natural water basins glistened in the sun. Some roads had standing water and damaged surfaces, but with residents long accustomed to floods, many have built high walls in front of their houses. 

I noticed how quiet it was in Pikine compared to N’gor, echoing with the endless boom of hammers installing new tin roofs, shovel-loads of sand being shifted to create moats and walls around doorways, and a loud chorus of frogs – which have experienced a population explosion along with the mosquitoes thanks to the standing flood water.

I imagine there were similar sights and sounds in Pikine in 2006, the first year the village incurred serious flood damage. For us in N’gor, though, this year’s flood was the worst ever due to rainfall volume, and people are not accustomed to it.

I was hit too - and even if I had known it was coming, there was no better way to protect myself without realising the roof, windows and walls of my house were too shoddy to hold out the rain.

“It doesn’t mean anything if you don’t have the means to prepare against the rains they warn of,” says Diallo. “The sand bags we had made beforehand we found floating because of the amount of water.”

Even if not all Pikine residents fared well, it seems likely their previous experience allowed them to do better than in N’gor.

The day after the rains, I was lucky to be able to get out of my front door to buy groceries and make it out to Pikine. And once in Pikine, I was able-bodied enough to navigate climbing and walking on walls to get around, as needed on some streets.

For older people and children, however, that situation can be dangerous. In Pikine, several women told me how they would have to stay at home for days until the water receded, to make sure young children didn’t wander out and drown.

And for the residents here, it seems that helping one another extends beyond their village boundaries. After my house in N’gor was flooded, I received an SMS from a beneficiary of the Vivre avec l'eau | Live with water project: “We heard you are flooded,” it said, “Come live at our house.”

I figured this meant the anti-flood system must have held during the storm -- though knowing the Senegalese deep sense of hospitality, I’m sure even if they had been flooded and living on their roof, they still would have invited me.


While impressive, I fear that the incredible strength of Senegal’s informal social safety net may be hurting people in the long-term when it comes to disaster management.

Because citizens are helping one another prepare and cope with the floods, it could be relieving the government of what most would consider its responsibility: to provide basic services that enable communities to prepare for and recover from natural disasters.

Why doesn’t the public demand more from the government? Perhaps people are too busy helping one another out to protest on the streets, or perhaps they have just become too used to the government not stepping in.

Of course I hear many residents of Pikine and N’gor complain about the lack of official support – there is no infrastructure to prevent floods, no pumps brought in afterwards, not enough notifications given, no assistance to recover or rebuild.

But the residents are often discussing this days later, in mostly dry homes with amply stocked pantries, or at least while leaning on the shoulders of their neighbours, having overcome the worst together. Then they seem to drop the topic, until the next flood.

Still I wonder what would happen if this murmur of popular discontent were to grow as loud as the bellowing post-flood frog chorus outside my window?

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