Dealing with natural disasters, particularly floods, means combating the vulnerability of populations and working to build up their resilience. In his research, Cheikh Faye, PhD in geography and research lecturer at the Assane Seck University in Ziguinchor, Senegal, sets out to describe, on the basis of solid, objective data, the phenomenon that is recurrently affecting neighbourhoods in Ziguinchor. It also gives a voice to local residents, paving the way for a method that involves local people in defining the actions needed to reduce their vulnerability.

Your research looks at the vulnerability and resilience of populations to the risk of flooding in Senegal, particularly in Ziguinchor. What are the objectives of such a study?

Cheikh Faye: Natural disasters are occurring at an accelerating rate worldwide. Africa is particularly exposed to this phenomenon for several reasons. Firstly, the continent is facing a demographic explosion and rapid, uncontrolled urbanisation. Then there are the frequent climatic hazards. Senegal is no exception to the rule, and even less so the city of Ziguinchor, which combines a number of aggravating factors: poverty among the population, a failing sanitation system, the inadequacy or even absence of an urban development plan, the construction of housing in flood-prone areas, the weakness of public authorities in disaster management, etc.

My study aims to identify and assess the population’s vulnerability and level of resilience on the basis of documentary work and tangible indicators derived from a survey of a sample of residents. At the end of the day, the aim is to have solid data on flooding and its impact on neighbourhoods and populations so that we can consider filling in the gaps and strengthening the communities’ response capacity. One of the specific challenges is to demonstrate the value of involving communities in the search for solutions.

What is the approach you have developed?

CF: The first step was to analyse the physical and ecological vulnerability of the city of Ziguinchor. It emerged that the increase in flooding was part of a general upward trend in extreme precipitation events. In addition, the city has undergone rapid development, with the surface area occupied increasing from 254 ha in 1950 to 2800 ha in 2022. Mapping reveals that the built-up area extends mainly in low-lying areas where the altitude is less than fifteen metres, making it particularly vulnerable.

We then carried out 342 one-to-one interviews with a representative cross-section of the population in six neighbourhoods. These interviews were based on a questionnaire designed to assess and quantify the vulnerability of residents using an index. In a way, it is a tool for analysing one’s own vulnerability. The focus groups were then used to generate debate, discuss the causes and suggest solutions.

What do discussions with residents reveal about their perception of their own vulnerability and the solutions they see?

CF: Results confirm the vulnerability and low resilience of populations in the six neighbourhoods observed, with some variations, particularly in areas where awareness-raising activities have been carried out. Although economic and social vulnerability is high, institutional vulnerability is the highest. The ability of institutions to prevent flooding, or to warn and help the population, is strongly questioned. Three quarters of those questioned put the inadequacy of the drainage system to blame for the flooding. This shows that flooding is perceived as a public policy problem.

What possible actions might emerge from your work?

CF: Having a clear and objective view of the population’s level of vulnerability and resilience is in itself a basis for taking action. More generally, the workshops we organised showed that, contrary to popular belief, local people are aware of the risks of flooding and have a good knowledge of the phenomena and their causes. They would like to be involved in the decisions that affect them. Community initiatives need to be strengthened and communities need to be involved in setting up effective and respected urban planning. The message is aimed primarily at public authorities. They could even be inspired by the method used to gather the needs and ideas of the population. In the face of flooding, residents do not want to stand idly by. One of Nelson Mandela’s famous phrases clearly illustrates how they feel: “Anything done for me, without me, is done against me”.

Photo Credit: IFRC