Mamadou Thiam stands in what is left of his childhood home. The walls are compromised, the roof is gone, and the worn-off cerulean paint in one room is capitulating to years of extreme weather.
In Senegal, rising seas have led to devastating coastal erosion. If there is a war against climate change, the UNESCO World Heritage city of Saint-Louis is on the front lines. And the ocean is winning.
Thiam, 56, was born and raised in this blue room in the seaside neighborhood of Guet Ndar in Saint-Louis, Senegal. He spent his adolescent years swimming in the ocean and grew up to be a fisherman.
Now, the same waters that shaped his life have turned against him.
Saint-Louis is located in northern Senegal, near the border with Mauritania.
The city, a former capital of West Africa, is perched precariously between the Atlantic Ocean and the Senegal River. Its cultural and economic contributions are felt all over West Africa.
Guet Ndar is the most vulnerable neighborhood in Saint-Louis, directly exposed to the tides of the Atlantic.
Data derived from satellite imagery shows the coastline is rapidly eroding, making Guet Ndar more vulnerable than ever.
“God has pushed the sea up to our houses,” Thiam says. “Climate change destroyed many homes.”
Median annual shoreline
Each line represents the median position of the shoreline for a given year, according to an analysis by Digital Earth Africa. The median coastline varies year to year, but the trend inland is clear.
In 2018, a high tide swept through Saint-Louis. The sea expanded and destroyed houses along its path. Raging waters flooded the streets.
“I was afraid for the children and the women,” Thiam says. “I was trying to save them. When all the children and the women were rescued, that’s when I started being afraid for myself.”
The flooding devastated Guet Ndar, destroying a seaside school and many homes. The hollowed ruins of the school remain, a daily reminder of the sea’s power.
More than 300 families were forced to relocate.
Thiam’s family moved 5 miles inland, to a United Nations-funded internally displaced people (IDP) camp created for those who had been forced to leave their homes.
The camp, called Diougop, offers a stark contrast to the home he grew up in. People in the camp live in makeshift homes that sit on concrete blocks.
They are lined in uniform, gridlike rows surrounded by sand. Each home has identical flimsy walls and a gray roof.
“We no longer have the cool, fresh air we used to have from the sea,” Thiam says.
The homes were funded by aid agencies, including the United Nations, and installed by the local population. Despite the challenges, Diougop has a warm, close-knit neighborhood feel.
Thiam’s wife, Khadi Sarr, sits just outside their home under sheets that struggle to provide relief from the piercing sun. As she pours tea, surrounded by her daughters, memories of a different time begin to flow.
“When I was a child, every morning we used to go to the sea to swim, to play hide and seek,” Sarr says. “Our kids nowadays won’t have that opportunity.”
In her grandchildren’s lifetime, up to 75% of Senegal’s coastline will be at risk of the same erosion that’s eating at Saint-Louis, according to a 2020 United Nations report.
A disaster in 2003 serves as a stark reminder of the precarity of life in Saint-Louis.
To relieve flooding from the Senegal River, authorities dug a trench through the Langue de Barbarie peninsula, just south of the city, to let the water escape to the ocean.
It worked, but the 4-meter trench quickly widened to more than 3 miles, becoming the new mouth of the river and bringing the ocean right to people’s homes.
Still, Saint-Louis remains a bustling fishing town, considered a titan of the country’s fishing industry.
Vibrant pirogues line the beaches, and on any given day you can see fishermen out in the Atlantic Ocean.
Sarr and her husband, Thiam, don’t know what the next 10 or 20 years will bring. And they are not alone.
The neighborhood Khar Yalla, which means “waiting for God” in Wolof, was built inland to serve as a home for those who had been displaced by rising seas. But this neighborhood, too, was soon inundated with water.
“In 20 years, Saint-Louis will not be what it is today,” says Mamadou Dimé, professor of sociology at Saint-Louis University.
“The scenarios are often very pessimistic regarding the consequences of climate change. For me, Saint-Louis is on borrowed time,” Dimé says.
Sarr’s generation had a picturesque childhood near the sea. That’s all she wants for the next generation.
For now, as she enjoys her second cup of tea while surrounded by her children and grandchildren, she is happy they are out of harm’s way.