Tracking Climate Change in Senegal

On a recent trip to Senegal, independent journalist Bob Butler saw first-hand how climate change is devastating communities there and across the continent. He shares the remarkable story of his travels.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

And now we move on to a story out of West Africa. Independent journalist Bob Butler recently went to Senegal, where he saw first hand how climate change is devastating communities there and across the continent. He joins me now to talk more about this.

Welcome, Bob.

Mr. BOB BUTLER (Independent Journalist): Thanks, Farai.

CHIDEYA: So how did you even decide to follow these stories to Senegal? What piqued your interest?

Mr. BUTLER: Well NABJ, the National Association of Black Journalists, has a fellowship program along with the United Nations in which they take journalists over to Africa to report on the Continent, and to tell stories that unfortunately the American media does not tell. We thought we were going to talk about malaria and HIV, but the real story there was climate change and how it's affecting the people there. And its effects are dramatic.

CHIDEYA: You talked to any number of people who had official government positions. But one of the stories that really struck me was visiting a compound with a 78-year-old patriarch. Tell me about him and what happened to his family.

Mr. BUTLER: Well, this is the community of Thiawlene, which is on the Atlantic Ocean in the town of Rufisque. It's about 20 miles from Dakar, the capital. And we had been told that climate change was taking people's homes. But you know, we in the United States, we hear about climate change, we don't really think that it affects us. We hear about global warming, but it's affecting other people. We don't thing it - we don't experience it.

Well, this is my first time actually experiencing it. What happened in Thiawlene, July 4th of last year, a torrential rainstorm came, inundated the entire compound to the point where they had to put the kids up on the roof, grab what they could. The guy said he awoke to find his bed floating, and water coming in, and it was like that all day.

But their - you know, Senegal is a Muslim country. And in Islam, when a loved one dies, you really take care of the gravesite, because you find comfort in going to the gravesite. So the cemetery was right next to this housing compound. And the cemetery was inundated with water. Half of the graves washed out to sea. These people are still dealing with that.

CHIDEYA: NPR has been focusing on the issue of climate change, but what is really the cause here? I mean, when you talk about the ocean essentially creeping up on people's homes and businesses, what were the reasons that you found that could be the cause, the specific cause of that?

Mr. BUTLER: We talked to scientists. I talked to a researcher at U.C. Berkeley who's one of the experts on climate change. And he said, well, you know, when the water warms, it expands. So when the ocean warms, the water expands, it will rise. There are other people who say, well, it could have been nothing to do with climate change, it could have been the fact that maybe they were pumping groundwater out and then the land sinks.

But we're talking about an entire coastline that's sinking. So I don't know if that's really the case. But the guy at Berkeley said, we expect to see these kinds of effects, you know, everywhere, because the water is getting warmer. You know, I talked to one of the researchers for the department of the environment, or the ministry of the environment, and he said that the sea level temperature has risen in the last 10 or 15 years. And he said we have to do something now to stop it. They don't know what to do.

CHIDEYA: Bob, when you talk about people putting the kids up on the roof and mattresses floating, of course it calls up Hurricane Katrina, and you did make some explicit comparisons. How does it resonate in your mind that you have black people in the U.S. having dealt with this enormous tragedy and the ramifications are still unfolding, and then you get to see people in Senegal dealing with what also sounds like an enormous tragedy to them?

Mr. BUTLER: You know, the guy we're talking about, his name is Baijeng(ph); he was the elder of this family in this compound where about a hundred people live. When he started talking about putting kids on the roof and having to wait for help, I said, well, you know, in the United States we had Hurricane Katrina. Do you guys know about that? He said, oh yeah, we - he was speaking through an interpreter. He said yeah, we knew about Hurricane Katrina, we watched it on television.

But the difference there is that the United States, you were able evacuate the people, you know? We couldn't do that here. We had to stay. They can't go anywhere. And he said they're worried now that if the sea comes in again, they'll have no place else to go.

CHIDEYA: You also talk about over-fishing, decline in fish harvest, and how that's affecting people's lives. What's going on there?

Mr. BURLER: Well, 40 percent of the population of Senegal depends on fishing for their livelihood. There's a couple of things happening. One, because the sea is rising, the salt water is rising - it's getting into the mangrove swamps where a lot of these fish reproduce. Salt water disrupts the reproductive cycle, so they're not producing as many fish. You also have a situation where the fisherman who used to go out for eight hours a day, come back and sell their fish, they have to stay out longer. Because they have to stay out longer, it used to be a time where they used to throw back the small ones. Well, now they're keeping them.

But it's not just them. I mean, they're contributing to their own problem, but you've also got a situation where these foreign factory ships are coming in. They have limits on how many fish they can catch in European waters - these ships. There are no limits into how many fish they can catch, you know, off Africa. They're supposed to stay 200 miles out. Well, they're coming a lot closer than that. So they're also taking the juvenile fish. It's putting a tremendous pressure on the fishing resources they have there in Senegal.

CHIDEYA: What is the best and worst case scenario? I mean, it sounds as if there needs to be more of a hand from national and international leaders - you know, government, NGO - to really try to deal with some of these issues. Do you see that happening or do you see these problems continuing to worsen?

Mr. BUTLER: We ask what can be done and they said we need help. How do you stop the sea from rising? That's something that's not going to happen soon. In fact, you know, the guy at Berkeley says, you know, we expect to see this in the future. We don't know for sure what we're seeing is climate change here. He said the people that are the most knowledgeable about climate change are the ones who are the most worried, because they're seeing changes happening a lot faster than they expected to see them.

Until you can really stop emitting the greenhouse gasses, you're not going to have any change. And the problem is, according to these researchers, if we stop emitting greenhouse gasses today, no more greenhouse gasses today, we're still in for decades more of global warming because of the stuff we've already emitted. It takes years sometimes for it to take effect, sometimes decades.

CHIDEYA: One of the things we do with our Africa Update is try to provide a broader view of the world. But do you think people are really plugging in? Are they going to plug in to reports like yours? Are they going to plug into the stories of people who exist thousands and thousands of miles away?

Mr. BUTLER: One of the problems, I think, is that our audiences in the United States don't care about Africa. It's so far away that we don't really care about it. You know, the only time you see Africa, usually, if we're talking about civil war, if we're talking about famine, if we're talking about HIV and AIDS. You don't talk about the good stories. I mean there's a lot of good stuff happening there. It's hard to get people who are the ones who are controlling the media, who are controlling the message, to care about doing these kinds of stories about Africa, because they feel nobody cares.

I mean, the most coverage I've seen on Africa that doesn't have to do with pestilence and civil war is Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie going to Namibia to have a kid. So to get people to care about what's happening there as far as global warming, I think we have to just continue to send the message out. And people I think eventually may start to feel it.

CHIDEYA: All right. Well, Bob, thank you for sharing your time with us.

Mr. BUTLER: It's my pleasure, Farai.

CHIDEYA: Bob Butler is an independent journalist and president of the Bay Area Black Journalists Association. You can find links to his series on the effects of climate change in Senegal and see pictures at our Web site, nprnewsandnotes.org.

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