Life Inside A City That's "Drowning" From Torrential Rains Every Year

Photo: Flurina Rothenberger.
The aftermath of Senegal's torrential rains is sadly familiar for the millions living in and around the capital of Dakar.

Streets flood, making traversing Dakar's urban centers near impossible. Houses and business are damaged or destroyed. Vital drinking water sources are contaminated. Dozens die.

In all, the near annual flooding has impacted an estimated 100,000 to 300,000 people in recent years, according to one dispatch from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Many factors, including the city's geology, the changing climate, and shortfalls in urban planning, contribute to the devastation that rocks Dakar during the rainy season. But solutions have been hard to come by in the West African country's largest city. And there is little indication that the city will be better prepared for the next round of rain this coming summer.

"Experts estimate that it will take five if not 10 years until the Senegalese government will be able to handle the flood situation, taking climate change and lacking urbanization plans into account," Flurina Rothenberger, a photographer who has documented the floods, told Refinery29.

Rothenberger, who was born in Switzerland and raised in the Ivory Coast, spent several years chronicling life in Dakar. She has captured struggles that come with the rains. and the resilience and unity the community shows in the face of an ongoing state of natural disaster.

The resulting series of photos, Dakar ne dort pas, dakar se noie (translated: Dakar does not sleep, Dakar is drowning), became part of a multimedia collaboration with visual artist Cheikh Diallo and hip-hop artist Goormak.

For Rothenberger, it's important for the public to see that this is "not a simple story of disaster from Africa." The roots of the problem — and possible improvements — are complex, with regional, cultural, and political considerations.

"The consequences of climate change, migration into the cities, irregular settlements, and the absence of urban planning is especially disastrous in the suburb," she told Refinery29. "[At the same time,] the city is prime example of change, modernization, and progress."

Click through for Rothenberger's moving images, her observations from living amid the devastating floods, and her advice for what you can do to help the issue.

All photo captions, p
rovided by Rothenberger, were written by Judith Wyder.
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Photo: Flurina Rothenberger.
What is daily life like when the floods arrive?
"Before the floods, there is the rain. The smell and the gushes of wind. The first rumble of thunder and then the rain hits the ground. Fierceful at first, accompanied by the shouts of women ordering their girls to fetch the ever damp laundry, students huddling under narrow eaves sheltering their books, market ladies clearing their stalls, men rushing home to secure the house, and the squealing of excited children. As the rain settles to a regular continuous swoosh, the people switch to calm submission. The sandy paths which run between the clusters of homes in suburban municipalities like Diack Sao or Thiaroye, immediately turn into pools, then rivers. The children welcome the unexpected, women give their hair a quick wash under the jets of water channeled by tin roofs. Goats climb the piles of abandoned bricks laid out to dry for yet another construction. Quickly the water enters the courtyard, creeps under doors and through windows."

Caption: Every year streets in the urban catchment areas change into rivers during the rainy season from the end of July until the end of September. Senegal has 13 million people, of which 43% live in the city peripheries, where irregular settlements are very common.
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Photo: Flurina Rothenberger.
Caption: Those affected who left their ruinous houses often say that they have not been looked after in the new place, and that their situation has rather deteriorated. Those who stick it out in the critical areas conclude that it is better to stay where they are.
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Photo: Flurina Rothenberger.
"Many homes in the suburbs have sunk so deep into the sand over the years that the windows are now leveled with the ground. During the floods, life is a constant set of obstacles, demanding new creative strategies daily," Rothenberger added. "Rice bags filled with sand are laid on the paths. Rooms fill with water. Sleeping places are raised up on bricks and eventually moved to the roof along, with an improvised kitchen. Dangling cables secured. Budgets are tight. Incomes drop with business running slow or dropping altogether. Traffic breaks down and employees lose their jobs in the city center. Expenses rise: for medicine, temporary relocations, materials to secure the access to the house, and the home itself. Desperate money requests are made to family members abroad. ... Everyone knows, that each abandoned home turns into a humid waste dump and perfect breeding ground for mosquitos and diseases."
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Photo: Flurina Rothenberger.
Caption: In Dakar, one sociocultural phenomenon is more in evidence than elsewhere. A father and husband is expected to build a house for his family in order to be fully respected in society. This goes to the extent that some feel it is a better idea to build a house in a high-risk area, rather than not to own a house at all.
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Photo: Flurina Rothenberger.
"Schools in the suburbs show deserted desks and benches, blackboards filled with knowledge no one can afford to care for, and notebooks float on the water surface. The principal gives a frustrated speech about a failed system, which he blames no less on each single citizen, than he does on the state altogether."
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Photo: Flurina Rothenberger.
Can you tell us more about the woman in this photo?
"The girl is named Fanta. Her mother, an elderly market woman, earns the income for the whole family. With the rains business runs slow. Fanta‘s brothers have no income and live with their families in the same house in Thiaroye. Fanta‘s deceased father acquired the house, believing that the object was outside the danger zone. Meanwhile, it borders on two house ruins that are filled with standing water and rubbish the whole year round. I visited this family several times. The neighbors collected the money to support the family in draining the water from the house, but it kept pushing back in from the neighboring ruins. They first relocated to the roof, and then abandoned the house altogether."

Caption: Fanta, 18, feet in Wellington boots, sits tight in Thiaroye. The African research initiative “Africa talks Climate" came to the conclusion, that although the Senegalese population is aware of the reality of climate change and the deterioration of their environment, little is known about their causes.
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Photo: Flurina Rothenberger.
What surprised you most about what you witnessed and experienced?
"The ongoing construction boom in this high-risk area, which hasn‘t slowed down a bit. That inhabitants of the most affected areas content with the floods, contesting their right to live there is understandable. The proximity to Dakar‘s capital as a lifeline, and the social code which stipulates that every married man is expected to build a house for his family, is one explanation. But the surprise came when I visited a large new middle-class community. All houses are either brand new or in a state of construction."
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Photo: Flurina Rothenberger.
"Another thing I witnessed, not as a surprise but rather once again, is the will to help each other out — to negotiate conflicts, to support those who have nothing left and despite the hardship, to hold on to values which ultimately secure the life shared with each other. It's an experience I‘ve made many times in Muslim communities."

Caption: Despite neighborly help, Aida and her family were forced to flee onto the roof to escape the water. As a single mother, she was unable to pay the bill for the pumping out of the water and had to leave the house. Here, she hands a neighbor a cup of tea.
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Photo: Flurina Rothenberger.
Your project introduction describes the work as tracing “the environmental, political, and social consequences of the annual floods.” Can you expand on the social consequences that you observed?
"Children and students missing out on their education because of flooded and closed down schools. Severely elevated health risks. Income problems with flooded roads preventing residents from the suburbs to reach jobs, universities, main selling points for their merchandises, etc. Homes eventually lost in the rain, causing further budgetary and social tensions amongst the extended family. There are many social consequences, but they need to be understood in the context of the local culture of life. Details which go beyond the scope of this interview."


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Photo: Flurina Rothenberger.
Caption: Fanta facing the challenges of the rain season in her home a few days before the big feast ending Ramadan. In the '70s and '80s, the Sahel region suffered severe drought. Since the end of the '90s, devastating rainfalls have increased during the rainy periods. The ones hit most by global change are inhabitants with limited incomes in the suburbs such as Pikine, Guédiawaye, and Rufisque, where the ongoing coastal erosion and the rising sea level have aggravated the situation.
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Photo: Flurina Rothenberger.
Caption: Just before the rainy season, many house owners invest their last penny in piles of sand, which is heaped on the floor of the house when water pours in. The fact that the space between the floor and the ceiling continuously shrinks over the years, letting the house slowly sink into the ground, is completely ignored.
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Photo: Flurina Rothenberger.
Are there any ways in which women are uniquely impacted by the floods?
"In my experience, women in general are often more impacted in situations of emergency by the simple fact that the realities of life for women and their needs continue to be viewed as less important than those of men. Women are more present and visible in the daily family life. Men in search for jobs often migrate. And many women I met live in polygamous marriages, with the husband splitting his time between two households. Women there, by tradition, are under a certain pressure to ensure the husbands well-being and happiness. He is expected to provide financially... but she‘s the one considered responsible for daily life to run smoothly. This gets a lot more complicated during the floods. Securing the house, bringing food to the table, taking care of grandparents and toddlers. Not to forget that Eid, the feast marking the end of Ramadan, takes place in the middle of the rainy season. The women organize, cook and host amidst the reality of a damaged home. And of course there are the common dangers women are more exposed to than men. The public transport, which during the rains often cease to run, leaving passengers stranded in a random place after dark."

Caption: Awa Nguere, 54, lost her fight against the water in Thiaroye. As a market woman she earns the whole family’s income. Her sons are unemployed. Her deceased husband acquired the house, believing that the object was outside the danger zone. Meanwhile, it borders on two house ruins that are filled with standing water and rubbish the whole year round.
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Photo: Flurina Rothenberger.
Caption: In the local language Wolof, the word "keur" means house. It is pronounced in the same way as the French "coeur," meaning heart. The "keur dakarois" affected by the damages from the flood are full of cracks. They plunge families headlong into disaster, instead of providing a safe roof over their heads.
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Photo: Flurina Rothenberger.
Caption: An old Senegalese proverb says: “Magg dafa fonk alalame" which means “the old man clings to his possession." In his heart, no African “Chef de famille" can accept that water has long taken over his house, not even in an emergency. Despite no available alternative, he is unwilling to leave this vital asset to its fate. This is because he reckons in his despair that what can not be must not be.
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Photo: Flurina Rothenberger.
This series was shot between 2012 and 2014. How did conditions or response to these disasters change (if at all) over that time?
"I focused not solemnly on the rainy season, but also on the dry months of the year, the peak season for construction works. During the dry periods, the problem of the floods is minimized, but far from eliminated. The standing water remains all year and is omnipresent."

"One hand, the construction boom in the outskirts of Dakar [increased]. On the other hand, I witnessed the completion of the new motorway out from the capital, now sitting on a dam and no longer at risk from flooding. But since it‘s subject to tolls, most public transport regular people can [only] afford still to use the two arterial roads, which run parallel to the motorway. They, for now, are all the more flooded. Several emergency plans were drawn up while I worked on the subject — solutions regarding the flooded streets, overfull lakes, and the lack of drainage system. However, all ministries, departments, and firms involved work independently of each other, thus lacking the necessary coordination."
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Photo: Flurina Rothenberger.
Caption: In many African cities, concepts of urban growth are lacking, this too is the case in Dakar. In 1967, the Senegalese government proclaimed a construction ban in marshland zones, but this has been widely ignored.
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Photo: Flurina Rothenberger.
Tell us why you chose to call this project Dakar ne dort pas, dakar se noie (translated: Dakar does not sleep, Dakar is drowning).
"The title was temporary for the exhibition and sort of stuck... In general, I refer to the project with the name 'Ndox,' which means 'rain' in Wolof, a local language. There is a story to Dakar ne dort pas, Dakar se noie. It was the first morning, after a few days and nights with heavy rainfalls. The season had begun. Large parts of Dakar‘s suburbs and many areas of the city center were flooded. Our bus got stuck, half way to Diack Sao, a suburban municipality, 24 hours before the big feast marking the end of Ramadan. Buses, taxis and horse carts stand still at the capital's main traffic junction. ... People keep cool, roll up trousers and go barefoot through the brown pool of water. Farther up, a women stands up to her waist in the brackish water balancing several trays of eggs on her head. A man lifts his two daughters up, one on each shoulder. It looks like a divine performance as he firmly steps into the water, one girl identically dressed on each side. Greetings remain — as usual — polite: 'Na nga def?' ('How are things?') 'Maangi fi rek.' ('All good'). ... You cope and work it out. Everyone knows: The floods will be a permanent topic for the next two months — you deal with it. Some boys are sitting on the fridge in front of an [electric] shop, looking cool. One of them sells newspapers and is holding the pile in his lap. Just as I glance at the big headline: Dakar ne dort pas, Dakar se noie, a man, rolling up his trousers, looks up at me, winks and says: 'Not quite the beach trip you had in mind for your visit to Dakar, right? Sorry bout that!' As I give him my broadest smile I think, Dakar may be drowning, but its citizens are truly wide awake."
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Photo: Flurina Rothenberger.
What can our readers to do help?
"Climate change is something each reader contributes to. Regaining awareness helps: looking into things, taking the components of an iPhone back to its origins. Suddenly you end up not so far from the farmer [who is] forced to give up his very sustainable life and move to the suburbs of a city in search of work for himself and his children. It's not only Africa‘s development that has been dictated by greed — so have many other unfortunate progressions, such as climate change. Personally, I‘m convinced that the [solution] with the highest impact is the one you‘ll find closest to you. Leading a sustainable lifestyle, one which secures not only your own comfort, but that of those providing for it too."
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