Deadly West African Floods Hit Poor Hardest

Torrential rains and floods in West Africa have killed at least 160 people, according to the United Nations. More than half a million homes and businesses also have been affected, particularly in poorer areas. One of the countries hardest hit is Senegal.

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The sun is timidly peeping out again but torrential rains continue in Senegal, making it one of the West African nations hard hit by floods in recent weeks. The United Nations says at least 180 people have been killed in the region and the homes and businesses of more than half a million more are affected.

NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports.

(Soundbite of splashing)

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON: Senegal's normally sunny seaside capital has not been spared by the seasonal deluge. Areas of Dakar resemble a conflict zone with sandbags doubling up as stepping stones and piled high as barriers to try to stop the invasion of rainwater.

(Soundbite of bells)

QUIST-ARCTON: Horses and carts, a common form of transport here, lurch to and for as they negotiate rotted, waterlogged roads. And poor neighborhoods like these, Seoro and Fete Bowal on the edge of the city, have been inundated by the rains.

(Soundbite of call to prayer)

QUIST-ARCTON: They've come at a difficult during Ramadan, the month-long fasting season in majority Muslim Senegal.

Ms. INDEY UNDUMING YANG(ph): (Foreign language spoken)

QUIST-ARCTON: Yes, it's been a tough few weeks, a despondent Indey Unduming Yang tells me. She hoists her bright blue, ankle-length dress above her knees and wades through the rain waters towards her flooded home. She said much inside it had again been wrecked by the rains. She says her neighbors have abandoned their homes and gone back to their villages.

Ms. YANG: (Foreign language spoken)

QUIST-ARCTON: Madam Yang told me she had to move house(ph) several times in recent years in this neighborhood, because her homes have always flooded.

(Soundbite of children)

QUIST-ARCTON: Children play around in D'angd'ang in more than a foot of fetid looking water, covered in a carpet of bright green algae.

Senegalese often wear long colorful gowns called Bubu, but even elderly women have had to abandon modesty to keep themselves dry. It's now common to see clothes raised thigh-high to avoid the splish-splash of muddy waters, which soak and soil everything in sight.

QUIST-ARCTON: The Senegalese are not the only ones suffering in this region, says the U.N.'s Yvon Edoumou, on the line from inundated Ouagadougou, capital of Burkina Faso. Edoumou's U.N. Organization for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in West African, OCHA, is helping people across the region deal with damage and destruction from the floods.

Mr. YVON EDOUMOU (United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs): It's the communities and particularly the poorer families who are most affected. And now West Africa is already a region that's among the poorest in the world. Some of these communities are already suffering with more basic needs, such as food and water, and health and education.

Now they have to deal with flooding and their livelihoods have been affected; fields have been flooded. And so we're looking at thousands of families who are in a dire situation.

QUIST-ARCTON: The United Nations says that two years ago, 800,000 people were hit by heavy rains in West Africa. The U.N. Humanitarian Affairs office points to climate change as an underlying cause of the inundations.

Again, Yvon Edoumou.

Mr. EDOUMOU: West African governments need to put the issue of climate change on their agendas, meaning their political agendas so that they have the political will to deal with this issue, and their financial agendas so they start planning financially for how to resolve climate-related disasters. They also need to put it under basic humanitarian agenda because, after all, it is people who are affected by climate change-related disasters.

(Soundbite of splashing)

QUIST-ARCTON: At his wits end, and clutching a bottle of bleach given to him at the mayor's office to disinfect the rainwater all over his home, Jean Batiste Iyanga(ph) stands in the doorway of his flooded bedroom on the outskirts of Dakar.

He stretches out his long arms to show an empty space: no bed, no wardrobe, nothing except water up to his calves.

Mr. JEAN BATISTE IYANGA: (Foreign language spoken)

QUIST-ARCTON: Iyanga blames Senegal's President Abdoulaye Wade, who he voted for. He says Wade has made repeated promises to rehouse affected poor communities but has failed to deliver.

It's not all political though; rising waters are a feature of rapid urban expansion here in Dakar. During the droughts of the 1970s, precariously constructed homes were built on porous marshland around Senegal's capitol. When the drought ended and the rainy seasons returned, these neighborhoods began flooding.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Dakar.

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