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Earth Reporters: My City and Your City

Updated Saturday, 7th May 2011

Episode one: St Louis Senegal is the former colonial capital of West Africa; an Atlantic gem in the style of the great Creole cities. Now it is also the most threatened city in Africa from rising sea levels

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Children playng on beach through broken barricade Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: tve (Photographer: Miguel Vassy) In this episode the Mayor of St Louis is our Earth Reporter telling the story of his people’s response to the flooding it faces every rainy season and every high tide. The rising water spreads disease and misery and yet plight of St Louis is barely known on the international stage. The city’s mayor travels to Mexico City to voice on a global level his fears for the future of the place he was born.  He hears how other cities have faced their own challenges brought about by their environment.

This earth report was also made with the support of UN International Strategy on Disaster Reduction and the European Commission Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection.


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Narrator: St Louis, Senegal. The former colonial capital of French Africa now has an unfortunate claim to fame.

It is the city most threatened by rising sea levels in the whole of Africa. And every rainy season, thousands of people face upheaval from flood devastation.

This man is trying to save the port city from the onslaught of water, but for the Mayor of St Louis, Cheikh Mamadou Abiboulaye Dieye the prospects are bleak.

Cheikh Mamadou Abiboulaye Dieye: If things keep going the way they are, the whole city of St Louis will have to be moved, but it’s an idea a possibility that we do not want to contemplate.

Narrator: He’ll show us the problems in St Louis – and we follow him as he brings the plight of his city to the World Mayors Summit on Climate in Mexico City.

There he also learns lessons from Mexico City itself, which has suffered its share of emergencies from natural disasters. With over half of the world’s population living in cities, mayors like him across the world are sharing strategies in how to prepare when disaster strikes.

In this episode the mayor of St Louis Senegal is our Earth Reporter and this is his story.

Cheikh Mamadou Abiboulaye Dieye: St Louis is very special because it is the history and the soul of the country. Great intellectuals of this country were educated here. Whether it be religion, politics or academics – Senegal was invented here.

I was born in St Louis on November 12, 1965. Being a child in St Louis is very pleasant. As you can imagine, we have everything we need to satisfy children. Playgrounds, people getting along, Families living in harmony, with everyone participating in the education of everyone. But here in St Louis what makes it beautiful is also its weakness. We are in a zone which is extremely exposed. There are 4,800 hectares of which two thirds are at risk of flooding. So you see it’s an extremely fragile area.

Look here you’ve got the river and just 200 metres away you have the sea. And that poses a lot of problems in relation to climate change. How can the city adapt? How will we make sure that what makes the beauty of our city doesn’t cause a disaster?

Narrator: At City Hall, flooding affects every aspect of Mayor Dieye’s work.

And with global sea levels predicted to rise and more intense rains expected due to climate change, these problems could get worse for the city’s 250,000 residents, but protecting the city’s coastline comes under the responsibility of the national government. They are still trying to raise the 30 million dollars needed just to repair coastal defenses. Such amounts are a tall order for one of the poorest countries in the world. St Louis’ own annual budget is barely five million dollars.

Cheikh Mamadou Abiboulaye Dieye: St Louis is in an area of water. So when the sea advances this 17 km of coast is threatened. And on the other side, when you go further the water arrives to St Louis it’s the whole island that becomes the problem.

It’s extremely urgent that we proceed in relation to climate change, to protect this strip of land, which in itself has over 80, 000 people. The population density that exists in the fisherman’s district is found nowhere else in Africa.

This problem of the interaction between climate change and quality of life in St Louis leaves us no choice but to create awareness both in Senegal and worldwide to prevent this from happening. I remember my grandmother used to tell me when she was a very little child she had to walk 300 metres to reach the sea. Now you can see that the sea is just half a metre from the houses. And when there is a storm the waves are right inside the houses.

Here is a protection dyke which was built in the last century. And you can see the level of degradation. How can we keep ourselves safe, our children safe, with this wall as our only protection, which isn’t even continuous as just 50 metres further the wall doesn’t exist anymore and the houses are all exposed to the fury of the sea?

Aminate Sarr:

This year, the rain water came right into our houses. I couldn’t cook and there were some days that the children did not eat. The second rain threw me into complete despair; I didn’t know what to do or where to go. These difficulties affected me and most of my neighbours. We are desperate for help.

Narrator: Even if the money is raised to protect the coast, on the other side of the city the rising river level is the threat. With increased rains causing the river to swell, a dyke was built in 2000 to contain the river. But when battling against the natural elements sometimes the solution can also create other problems.

Cheikh Mamadou Abiboulaye Dieye: We are going to visit the East Dyke, which goes around the Sor Island. It’s simply to show you that when there are problems linked to climate change taking action is always desirable but to take action one must spend wisely and think deeply.

We are here today at the East Dyke. But this dyke as much as it is important in protecting from the swell of the river, it does as well create a problem with rainwater. It acts as a funnel holding the rainwater and the flood from reaching the houses. But all that water will be trapped here. You understand that it is extremely toxic for the people. Because the people have decided to come and dwell in unsuitable areas, due to the high cost of housing, they had nowhere else to go, so they are forced to come here.

Here is a striking example. They do not have the means to buy sand to build an embankment so, they use garbage which is all they have. So when the water arrives, you can imagine the danger to the health, to the children’s health and the general health of the city. To live in garbage mixed with rainwater or waste water. It’s an explosive cocktail which is a huge threat to the public health and to the quality of life in St Louis.

It is important that you understand what it is like for someone to live in this situation on a daily basis with their children. We are here with Mr Sen who was one of the very first residents of this area.

Alioune Badara Sene: This year we have this embankment, it was fine during the dry season, but three months ago, we had such big levels of water. There were some young children who died. Next door there was an asthmatic child who died right in front of me. When we have these projections which are extremely pessimistic, threat of disappearing completely, it scares me. What is going to happen for future generations, I don’t know.

Cheikh Mamadou Abiboulaye Dieye: So we are here in the St Louis Hospital, and when the rain waters come and with all the other phenomenon related to climate change, you can imagine the extremely precarious outcome for the population.

We are here looking at the cellar of the hospital, and I’m here with the person responsible for hygiene here. I think better than anyone he can explain the problem.

Mamadou Ibrahima Ndiaye: This cellar gets completely flooded; the hospital is built over these flooded cellars which breeds mosquitos, so the hospital is always full of mosquitos. It causes a lot of problems.


Cheikh Mamadou Abiboulaye Dieye: We are now in the cellar of St Louis hospital, so this is the same situation for all buildings in this World Heritage town. So you can see that it is completely flooded by the rising infiltration due to the swelling of the river.

Sometimes this water will mix with sewage water which makes for a gross and disgusting mixture. Sometimes it mixes with electrical cables, which creates huge problems. All of this is linked to climate change which is threatening the city.

Narrator: In only a few months’ time, the rains will arrive to St Louis bringing more flooding, sewage and disease to St Louis. It could get worse - experts say that weather patterns in West Africa may be even more unpredictable due to climate change. Mayor Dieye realises that the problems facing St Louis are much bigger than his small office or the country of Senegal can handle. So he decides it is time to take their plight to the international stage. He will attend the World Mayors’ Summit on Climate in Mexico City. Will he be able to get the problems of St Louis heard by the leaders of other cities of the world?

The World Mayors Summit on Climate. Part of an international effort encouraging Mayors to prioritise disaster risk reduction. The hope is that cities working together can combat the causes and effects of climate change, where national governments have lagged behind.

Jose Salceda (Governor of Albay, Phillipines): Basically I think local governments can take the lead not wait for national governments to come to some agreement because the needs of our people are here and now.

Narrator: It is an opportunity for Mayor Dieye to put the concerns of St Louis along side those of big cities from Europe and America.

Cheikh Mamadou Abiboulaye Dieye: The colossal budgets in the cities in the North it frustrates me a lot. The citizens of Toronto, Tokyo and Paris shouldn’t be relaxed about climate change when others in the South, particularly St Louis are taking the brunt, and they are not the ones responsible.

We are here, and we do not contribute to climate change but I can assure you that African cities are the ones that suffer the most from the effects of climate change. I am here bring the voice that is not often heard and often not invited and that is part of this world, and it is important that the world as a whole this time shows that it is capable of solidarity, it requires not to just look left and right, but to look up and down, and that is the message I bring you today. Thank you very much.

Narrator: At the end of the day, Mayor Dieye gets the opportunity to speak with Marcelo Ebrard the Mayor of Mexico City. He is hosting the event. He governs a city which is almost the size of the entire country of Senegal. As they met he was preparing for the Cancun Climate Change Conference in which he is a key player.

Marcelo Ebrard (Mayor of Mexico City): We have a similar approach to the trouble that we are facing. The national governments are taking decisions very slow way and we, you and me and the whole cities confirmed the risk. The risk in the short term.

Cheikh Mamadou Abiboulaye Dieye: And that’s why it is good that Mexico City is the advocate of poor smaller cities who are victims of climate change. And for Cancun and the other initiatives you are directing, it would be very interesting if the solidarity could help in terms of accountability for climate change, I think it is very important.

Marcelo Ebrard: So we are going to go to Cancun in order to fight for money and justice, an equal approach from climate action.

Cheikh Mamadou Abiboulaye Dieye: You know, when there is a flood it is the Mayor that people call, not the President of the country.

Marcelo Ebrard: It is the same thing all over the world.

Narrator: With the conference over, Mayor Dieye takes time to survey Mexico City to see if there is anything to learn from the megapolis for tiny St Louis.

Marcelo Ebrard: This is huge. Absolutely magnificent.

Narrator: On the surface it has little in common with the small city of St Louis. But Mexico City is in constant battle against its natural environment. It is surrounded by active volcanoes and is threatened by devastating earthquakes and flooding. Mayor Dieye is here to find out how Mexico City copes with potential disasters.

In 1985, the city suffered an earthquake which measured 8.1 on the Richter Scale. The death toll, over 10,000 people. The city has put in many anti-earthquake measures but the real challenge was in preparing the citizens themselves.

Marcelo Ebrard: How can you prepare the people against an earthquake because we forget faster? We got a painful memory so you try to avoid memories about ‘85 and the earthquake.

So how to promote practices in the schools and in the labour places, the offices with a society who wants to forget. So we establish day-by-day basis as an exercise not necessarily to talk about the next earthquake but to talk about what to do if you face another earthquake.

Narrator: At the National Medical Centre a mural depicts what the hospital went through during the earthquake. On a private tour, Mayor Dieye sees first hand many of the measures to protect the hospital. Many units of the hospital were relocated to the interior of the country away from the earthquake zone. And the existing buildings were refurbished to protect essential services.

Dr Felipe Cruz Vega (National Medical Centre of Mexico): Mr Mayor, we are here in the electric control centre of the hospital. We have a regular system here controlled by high definition equipment. But we also have this backup generator that will come into action 7 seconds after the city loses power. And up here this system of pipes carries oxygen, steam and nitric oxide. Everything that we consider vital lines for the hospital.

Narrator: On his last day, Mayor Dieye finds that St. Louis and Mexico City do share a common threat. Flooding. Surprisingly, although Mexico City is at an altitude of over 2,000 metres it is in fact built in a valley in a dried up lake bed. And when there is heavy rain there is flash flooding in many parts of the city. In 2010, over 30 people were killed by a single flood.

Marcelo Ebrard: We are a city in a lake, at a high altitude so if you have changes in the pattern of rain the city is going to be at risk. As a matter of fact, we are at risk every time. But especially the past 5 years we observed dramatic changes in the rain pattern which means we have more water and less time, so it’s very risky for the city. And if this trend continues the next years, the city can have really a risky situation, a high risk situation. More even than an earthquake.

Narrator: Mexico City has invested in a billon dollar drainage tunnel that will reduce the risk of flooding. But Mayor Dieye visits one of the city’s leading water experts to find out that when it comes to overcoming natural obstacles, monetary solutions are not enough. You have to engage with the real lives of your citizens.

Jorge Legorreta (Professor of Urban Planning, Autonomous University of Mexico): In the city of Mexico we took out the water, then we put in a city. So we are going to see this map over there. Tenochtitlan was like this. When it rains a lot the streets are flooded. In my point of view the radical transformation in the story of urbanism has been done here. Because we took out the water and put in a city. This is the problem of Mexico City. How are we going to solve this problem?

Cheikh Mamadou Abiboulaye Dieye: Are you an optimist in the capacity of Mexico City to manage the problem or do you think like others that the situation is completely lost?

Jorge Legorreta: I am very optimistic about the social forces present among those living in Mexico City. I don’t believe in architects’ models no matter how famous they are, or technicians or big companies or governments unless they understand that they must express the will of the people. If a society doesn’t understand how nature works, it will end in catastrophe and failure. We have to be less arrogant and superior with our knowledge and understand that nature has a lot to teach us. Here in Mexico we built a society against nature and now we’re going back to working with nature.

Cheikh Mamadou Abiboulaye Dieye: I hope like me you were impressed with the great energy of the professor, Jorge. We’ve learned that everywhere in the world, cities resemble each other and the people are battling against the natural elements. Against climate change, against flooding but everywhere there is a great hope despite of the difficulties to make sure that life goes on, and that people continue to have their place in their own cities.

Narrator: The Mayor has returned home to St Louis. The trip to Mexico City did not offer any quick solutions against the rising sea, but Mayor Dieye hopes that he is no longer alone in facing the problem.

Cheikh Mamadou Abiboulaye Dieye: It was an important moment for St. Louis to share its knowledge and learn from other experiences. The effects of climate change are global and they call on the conscience of everyone. We are all responsible for taking care of the planet today. We have to change our methods we have to change our behaviour for a better world and for the best upbringing we can have for our children.

Narrator: Anyone can be an earth reporter. To find out more about how to join the global conversation go to:





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