Climate change | Senegal

The island that’s left behind

In the middle of the Saloum river delta in Senegal lies the island of Diamniadio. Here people live off the sea – but every year the nets get a little emptier

A man in shorts and T-shirt drops anchor from a small boat.

Diamnadio Island is located in the branching Saloum River delta in western Senegal. The effects of climate change are becoming ever more apparent here

The silver dome of a mosque glistens above the rippling waves of the Senegalese river Saloum. Grey walls of single-storey buildings appear to rise straight out of the water's surface.

On the blue and white tiled gate at the end of a jetty, faded letters welcome those who disembark here, on Diamniadio Island in the middle of this branching river delta in western Senegal: “Soyez Les Bienvenus”.

In the shade of a shelter, a few men are mending a large net, a woman spreads freshly cooked crabs on a wooden plank. Next to them, the water laps onto the flat white beach.

“Right here, on Diamniadio, runs one of the frontlines of climate change”

But as picturesque as the scenery may be, it is also clear that precisely here, on Diamniadio, runs one of the front lines of climate change. The island is only a few metres above the water level.

When the tide comes in, the salty waters of the Atlantic penetrate deep into the branching arms of the Saloum and eat into the island's beaches. “Every year the water rises a little higher,” says Diamé Sarr, the mayor of Diamniadio.

Time and again, it even washes over the doorsteps of the grey cement houses on the island.

Moored in the shallow water near the shore are pirogues, colourfully painted narrow wooden boats that the island's men take out every day in the hope of catching a bountiful haul. The boats once gave the country its name: “Sunu gaal” means “our pirogue” in Wolof, the most common language.

No wonder, because off the 718-kilometre-long Senegalese coast was, until recently, one of the richest waters on earth in fish.

“The fact that the catch in this species-rich area is increasingly meagre is also due to the insatiable hunger for fish in other parts of the world”

Fish provides 75 percent of the country's animal protein. And it creates jobs: Almost every fifth person catches fish, collects mussels and crabs or processes them further. On Diamniadio, too, people have been living off what the river delta offers them for generations.

But every year the nets are a little emptier. “You used to be able to catch the fish from the beach, but not any more,” says mayor Diamé Sarr. The days when up to ten kilograms of fresh fish were pulled out of the water in an hour are long gone, he says.

When things are going well, five kilogrammes are caught per day.

“What sounded like a good deal in the short term cemented the struggle for fish as a resource in the long term”

The fact that the catch in this species-rich area is becoming increasingly meagre is not only due to the consequences of climate change, but also to the insatiable hunger for fish in other parts of the world. In 1979, Senegal was the first African country to conclude a fisheries agreement with the European Union.

What sounded like a good deal in the short term cemented the struggle for fish as a resource in the long term: since then, industrial deep-sea trawlers have been catching fish on a large scale.

In addition, there are now often Chinese trawlers, which, like their European competitors, often sail illegally under the Senegalese flag. In the areas closer to the coast, this leaves fewer fish for the local fishermen in their pirogues.

According to official figures, 400,000 tonnes of fish are pulled out of the sea in Senegal every year. But according to Diène Faye, director of the Senegalese Ministry of Fisheries, the actual figures are probably much higher.

His ministry is very aware of illegal fishing in local waters. But monitoring it is difficult and the budget is tight. “Biological breaks”, during which a certain species may not be fished, are now supposed to ensure the regeneration of fish stocks.

“According to official figures, 400,000 tonnes of fish are taken from the sea in Senegal every year”

Every year, therefore, new catch limits are negotiated, especially for the so-called noble fish such as the grouper, called “thiof” in Senegal. Thiof used to play the main role in the Senegalese national dish Thieboudienne - spicy rice with vegetables and fish.

Today, however, thieboudienne is often prepared with the much cheaper sardines, because only very few people can afford a thiof.

On Diamniadio, one hardly gets to hear about the political negotiation processes in Dakar. But their effects are palpable here, as the mussel collector Adjaratou Guéye explains: “We live from the sea. We can't do anything else but fish.” Guéye is around sixty years and does not know her exact age.

For a long time, she made ends meet with the proceeds from her dried mussels, but now it is no longer enough.

“Mussels, crabs and fish spoil quickly if they are not preserved”

Like most of the women in the village, she waded up to her waist in the muddy water between the mangrove roots every morning during the seven-month shellfish season. With her feet and a stick, she felt for oysters and other local shells, because in the brown-muddy water you can't see a hand's deep into the murk.

Anything she caught was put in a sack or bucket tied to her waist. She collected up to a hundred kilograms this way before Guéye heaved her catch ashore. The work is hard - and took its toll: where the fourth of her five toes should be, there is a gap on her left foot.

She does not know which river creature bit off the toe. Since then, Guéye rarely goes out into the mangroves herself. Mostly, she now processes the catch of the other women on land.

Mussels, crabs and fish spoil quickly if they are not preserved. On the island of Niodior, a good two hours by boat from Diamniadio, this is exactly what is possible: supported by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), a small fish factory was built there, where only women work.

They smoke, dry and pack the daily catch and sell it on at a profit on the mainland.

“No electricity and scant prospects: Almost every man on the island has left Diamniadio at some point”

But there is no electricity on Diamniadio. “If we had cooling facilities, we too could process larger catches,” says mussel fisherman Adjaratou Guéye. “We are completely cut off. Often it feels like we don't even belong to Senegal.”

Locals have no electricity and scant prospects: Almost every man on the island has left Diamniadio at some point in search of a better life. Sama Sarr, a 51 years old fisherman, set sail in a pirogue in 2006. He kept to the northern coast, parallel to the Mauritanian shore and finally, hoping not to be stopped by the Moroccan coast guard, to the Canary Islands.

At some point, food ran out, but his pirogue made it the 1,500 kilometres across the Atlantic. Sarr reached Spain - only to be deported from a refugee camp there after only six weeks. He had to scrape together the equivalent of 1,000 euros for the crossing.

What would have to change to make people want to stay on Diamniadio? The answer is clear: electricity, a motor boat, a wall to protect people from the rising water level. But Sama Sarr has given up hope that anything will change on his island.

“As soon as I have enough money together, I'll try again,” he says resolutely.

This text was written as part of a research trip with the German United Nations Association.
Translated by Jess Smee