SAINT-LOUIS, Senegal – Houses on the shore seem to have been ripped open by a giant claw. The corner of an abandoned school is gutted. All that is left of a nearby mosque is a flattened pile of concrete blocks and twisted iron rods.
The culprit behind this destruction in Saint-Louis, on Senegal’s Atlantic Coast, is the ocean itself.
At a rate that is increasingly worrying residents and officials, waves are lapping at buildings, eroding foundations until walls collapse and floors cave in.
“Two months ago, we were standing here, under a roof,” said Massamba Diaw, 70, who — like most men in his neighborhood — was a fisherman. Like many of his neighbors’, his house is crumbling.
“We all feel really sad, and threatened,” Diaw said, pulling his grandchildren away from the edge of his first floor, which is now exposed to wind and rain. “What will these kids do in the future?”
Eroding shorelines are a global problem, made worse by the rising sea levels that result from climate change. But it is particularly stark in Saint-Louis, especially on the Langue de Barbarie, or Barbary Tongue, a peninsula that acts as a natural buffer with the ocean.
“For the past decade, people here have really started to suffer the wrath of coastal erosion,” said Latyr Fall, a deputy mayor.
Saint-Louis, a city of more than 232,000 that was first settled by the French in the 17th century, is split in two by the Senegal River.
In the middle is an island that became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000, and is host to cultural events like jazz and dance festivals.
“It’s surprising, in view of the fact that both the fisherman’s peninsula and the island might be gone in two generations, that real estate prices don’t go down,” said Staffan Martikainen, a Finn who runs an artistic residency program.
But across the bridge that spans the small arm of the Senegal River, in the poorer neighborhoods, coastal erosion is an immediate threat. About 80,000 people live there, on a stretch of land that is barely 600 feet wide in some places.
Many in these neighborhoods are from the Lebou ethnic group, traditionally a fishing community. The ocean might have destroyed their homes, but it was also a source of food, income and community.
“In Saint-Louis, if fishing thrives, everything thrives,” said Fall, the deputy mayor. “But if fishing hurts, then everything hurts.”
Fishing is harder then ever for about 250 families that have lost their homes to erosion. Most of them, about roughly 850 people, were resettled by authorities in a temporary camp inland.
Yaram Sène, 20, said leaving was on everybody’s mind. “There is nothing here, no police, no health facility, no school,” she said.
Abdou Gueye, 42, said each family had received about $900 from authorities when their houses were destroyed, but nothing since. Few can afford to move.
Senegal is paying to build an embankment — made of five-ton bags of sand — that shields houses. But officials stress that the embankment is an emergency buffer from immediate destruction, not a permanent fix for the erosion. Authorities are waiting for results from engineering studies to determine long-term plans.
Some, like 53-year-old Ahmet Diagne, are taking matters into their own hands.
For the past several years, with financial help from the government and international organizations, he and his community of Doun Baba Dièye have planted thousands of mangroves and pine trees known as filaos, to halt erosion and reclaim land then used to farm and sell cassava, cabbages, melons, sweet potatoes and other produce.
Diagne became an expert of sorts on erosion, even for those in Saint-Louis who had derided his warnings that they, too, would soon face his village’s fate. “I received calls from people telling me: ‘Stop talking nonsense. You did not attend school. Who are you to talk about erosion and rising sea levels?’ But now, people are calling me back.”