Since the last quarter of 2020, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of people arriving by sea to the Canary Islands through irregular means.[1] Many of the boats used to reach the islands are pirogues, traditional fishing boats that are easily identified by their colourful paintings, from Senegal. Most of these pirogues depart from the coastal city of Saint Louis, located more than 1.350 km away.[2] This translates into a ten-day-long journey through the Atlantic migratory route (also known as the Western African Route) which is considered to be the deadliest route to reach Europe.[3] Given the climatology and the marine currents of the Atlantic sea, it is easy for the boats to get disoriented.[4] Together with the risks to run out of food, water, and fuel, most deaths on this route are caused by shipwrecks, dehydration, or hypothermia.[5]

A Senegalese pirogue with 195 migrants onboard arriving in Los Cristianos harbour in Tenerife, Canary Islands (Spain) on October 23, 2020. SEQ Figure.

One of the reasons for the recent increase in migration from Senegal towards Europe is the impact of COVID-19 on the local economy. Due to the pandemic, it is estimated that more than 7,000 Senegalese enterprises have shut down and 36% of household breadwinners have lost their jobs.[6] Yet, in the coastal cities of Senegal, including Saint Louis, the effects of climate change are also important stressors resulting in displacement and migration.

Saint Louis is located on the border with Mauritania and is between the mouth of the Senegal River and the Atlantic. The city has 230,000 inhabitants and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The colonial capital of Senegal is known as “the Venice of Africa” and, like the touristic Italian city, it is facing severe problems caused by climate change and sea-level rise. In 2008, UN-Habitat designated Saint-Louis as the African city most threatened by rising sea levels.[7] According to the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR), Saint Louis also faces the risk of long periods of drought and flooding during rainy seasons, river overflow, and coastal erosion.[8] The causes of these problems are intense storm surges[9] that have intensified due to climate change. Yet, another factor is found in a man-made engineering disaster that has had serious implications for the ecosystem and the wellbeing of the inhabitants of Saint Louis.

In 2003, Senegal experienced a period of heavy rains that caused severe flooding. Following this event, the government built a four-meter-wide canal across the peninsula of the Langue de Barbarie (which separates and protects Saint Louis from the Atlantic) to let the excess water flow out to sea faster and to prevent the widespread flooding of the city.[10] The breach was badly planned, and it has been getting wider after every heavy storm. It is now 6km wide and has cut off part of the peninsula, turning it into an island.[11] This engineering mistake has increased the tidal range of the Senegal River, constantly flooding the fishing villages on the Langue de Barbarie.[12] The government of Senegal estimates that by 2080, 80% of Saint Louis will be at risk of flooding and, as a result, 150,000 people will need to relocate. Another study by the World Bank concluded that 10,000 people in the city are already displaced or live within the high-risk zone of flooding.[13] The villages of Doun Baba Dièye and Keur Bernard already disappeared in 2012 and 2013,[14] whilst inhabitants of the villages of Guet Ndar and Gokhou Mbathie had to be relocated to the temporary relief camp of Khaar Yallah in 2018.[15]

Khar Yallah Camp in Senegal for internal displaced people due to climate change. Source: Vincent Tremeau/The World Bank.

The breach has also heavily distressed the ecosystem of the Langue de Barbarie: it has brought seawater into the river, which in turn has increased the salinity level of the river waters. This has affected the biodiversity and the provision of ecosystem services of the area. The population of bird species and river fish as well as the coconut trees and mangroves that protected the shore have dramatically decreased.[16] Besides, it has had a direct impact on the livelihoods and wellbeing of the local population. Increased seawater levels have affected the salinity of the soil surrounding the breach, reducing the amount of land available to agriculture,[17] which together with flooding and irregular rainy seasons, has affected local crops.[18] It has also reduced the freshwater supplies available for agricultural and domestic use for the inhabitants of the peninsula.[19]

In this context, life in the Langue de Barbarie has become extremely harsh. Local communities have been based around fishing for centuries. However, it is hard to make a living as a fisherman today. Not only are their homes and basic infrastructures disappearing, but they are also being deprived of the traditional livelihood.[20] As mentioned, the rising salinity has decreased the fish stocks of the river. In addition to this, changes in maritime currents and temperatures have also affected the availability of fish stocks on the Senegalese coast of the Atlantic Ocean.[21] This is added to the negative impact that overfishing in Senegalese waters by European and other foreign vessels is having on local fishermen.[22]

A family of the Pilote Barre village with a makeshift barrier in front of their house to protect it from flooding.
Source: Sylvains Cherkaoui/Le Monde.

With decreasing livelihoods, many young men from these communities are migrating. And fishermen are shifting their income generation activities from fishing to selling their boats for irregular migration purposes.[23] Yet, while the focus of migration is centered in Europe, most Senegalese migrants move in search of job opportunities in neighboring countries. The IOM estimates that 80 to 90% of migration flows in West and Central Africa are internal to the region.[24] Nevertheless, it must not be overlooked that climate change can also lead to immobility for people in an extremely vulnerable situation who lack the resources or possibility to migrate. For those on the front line of the impact of climate change and who cannot move, the only coping mechanism left is to build makeshift barriers to avoid the flooding of their homes after every storm.[25]


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