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When standing on the shore line at Rufisque L'est, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Dakar, Senegal, it's hard not to buy into apocalyptic climate change scenarios. The beach is gone. Wharves built by the French colonists, once linked to the shore, have been completely swept away, with just a few wooden pillars rising from the water as evidence of their existence. In one stretch, three city blocks, which included homes, warehouses, and a mosque, were pulled into the ocean. The local commune council, struggling to fend off the inevitable, have arranged for the placement of large boulders to stem further erosion.
On the surface, this looks like a frightening example of the impact of rising seas. But in the course of a one-week visit to Senegal focusing on climate change and migration, what came through most clearly was the devastating impact of human decisions and human actions on the health of the environment. In the Dakar area, beach erosion, and the resulting threats to homes and livelihoods, are primarily the result of a decision by the Dakar municipality 25 years ago to allow sand to be mined from the beaches for the local construction industry. This devastated the beaches, while local communities gained not a penny from the exploitation.
Further to the north along the coast in Saint Louis, the encroaching ocean is also threatening to inundate low-lying communities. But the encroachment is the result of a poorly planned drainage canal built to save the town from flooding. The canal, four meters wide less than a decade ago, is now a massive breach more than a kilometer wide, with the ocean threatening not only coastal communities, but also barrier beaches in a national park.
The Senegalese that we interviewed in the course of the mission pointed to two examples of climate change: reductions in rainfall that began in the 1970s impacting the viability of agriculture and livestock raising in northern and central Senegal, and rising ocean temperatures, changing the availability of certain species of fish in the coastal waters off Dakar. In the case of agriculture, however, salinization of the soil resulting from the impact of regional dams along the Senegal River has had an equally harmful impact on production.
The resulting migration patterns are complicated: farmers have moved into urban areas; pastoralists have sought better grazing areas in forested areas in the southeast; fishermen have gone as far as Guinea Bissau. The vast majority of Senegalese migrants have sought new economic opportunities either within the country or in neighboring countries in West Africa. Far fewer have sought new lives in Europe.
As Refugees International tries to determine its role in responding to actual and potential displacement due to climate change, my trip to Senegal provides a cautionary note. RI's primary concern is for people forcibly displaced, especially by conflict, who require international protection. Climate change, and the conflicts over resources that it may trigger, may indeed force people from their homes in such a way that an external response is needed. In many countries, however, migration is voluntary, and part of patterns of human mobility that are generations old. Further, some of the root causes of these migratory movements lie in poor development and policy choices, which RI, as an organization focusing on the immediate response to forced development, is ill-equipped to address.
Refugees International's contribution to the emerging concern for climate displacement is more likely to lie in closing the legal and material protection gaps for victims of large-scale natural disasters-- the frequency of which are likely to increase-- while continuing to focus on better national and international responses to internal displacement.