“What most people lost was a sense of permanence, connected to place,” the photographer Nicky Quamina-Woo tells me. “They are all fisherpeople who grew up on the sea, generations on generations.” In 2018, she visited Saint Louis, Senegal, a coastal city on the frontlines of the climate crisis, where homes, schools, and mosques have been destroyed by waves and erosion. Many have been forced to evacuate, with most moving to the Khar Yalla camp, a temporary settlement, where families live with up to nine strangers in a plastic-tarped room. Their future remains uncertain.
Quamina-Woo preparing for assignment in nearby Mauritania when she decided to spend some time in Senegal. “Senegal is one of those mythical countries that you always hear so much about, with its stunningly beautiful people and sense of style,” she remembers now. “I was constantly struck by their brilliance, sense of community, religious moderation, and will to joy at every turn. In the cities and the countryside both, there is a regal elegance to the people.”
After a week or two in Dakar, she went North to be closer to the sea. In Saint Louis, she saw the damage as she approached the water. “As I wandered around near the ocean, I came upon these destroyed homes lining the coastline, literally falling into the sea, and started asking questions about what had happened there, shocked,” the photographer says. “I began researching the topic and the effect it had on people’s lives.”
She spoke with individuals and families in the area about their experiences, and they agreed to be photographed. Their stories are now part of the series As the Water Comes. “I think that people were open to sharing their stories partly because they’re in a state of consternation, bafflement, and sadness that this is happening to them, and it’s a human function to try to share that experiential loss, hoping to be heard and seen by someone,” she says.
The situation in Saint-Louis is a complex one, with rising sea levels brought on by climate change being a significant factor. “The process of coastal erosion in Senegal began in the early 1980s; however, initially, it wasn’t taken very seriously,” Quamina-Woo says. “Erosion is primarily driven by changing sea levels, which is aggravated by human activities.”
In 2003, a mistake, made in response to heavy rainfall, compounded the issue. “The government announced the digging of a four-meter hole in the ‘Langue de Barbarie’ (‘Tongue of Barbary’), a long stretch of sand that creates a natural barrier between the Atlantic Ocean and the Senegal River,” the photographer explains. “The natural protection had already weakened because of mean sea level rises, current, storm surges, and tide shifts due to climate change.”
“The dug area was intended to open an unloading channel to facilitate the discharge of the river into the ocean as a way to contain and counter possible flooding. But the gap has widened, separating the southern end of the peninsula from the land and effectively making it an island. By January 2020, the breach had widened to nearly four miles.”
Another issue affecting these families, who’ve fished for generations, is fishing by international companies. “The depletion of fish due to government sharing of ocean rights with international companies has had far-reaching effects on the local economy,” Quamina-Woo continues. “The large decline in harvest has caused a ripple effect on nutrition and food supply throughout the country, where 75% of animal protein comes from fish. Fishermen from the community spend twice as much time out catching smaller hauls and are still having to compete with foreign fishing vessels.”
For fisherpeople and their families, losing their homes to coastal erosion is devastating. The transition further inland can be too. “At the moment, being so far away from the ocean is having a deleterious effect on these families comprised mainly of fishermen,” the photographer explains. “Fishermen make their living needing to physically see the ocean each day to know when it’s choppy or gusting, but the tented site is roughly an hour and a half ride away from the sea, so it’s hard for them to assess when to go out to fish, which adds further financial stress to their lives.”
Many proposed solutions are temporary. “Currently, Senegal is paying the French construction company Eiffage to build an embankment that shields houses from the ocean swell made of giant five-ton bags of sand topped with rock-filled cages, which will run for about two miles down the coast until it reaches parts of the old sea wall that are still standing,” Quamina-Woo says. “But the embankment is an emergency buffer to protect houses from immediate destruction, not a permanent fix for the erosion.”
Some longer-term solutions could include the building of a new sea wall, construction of breakwaters, or the clearing or resanding of beaches. “25% of the Senegalese coast is at high risk for coastal erosion, and it is estimated that this figure will increase to 75% by 2080 if sea levels continue to rise,” the photographer stresses. “Overall, the most crucial challenge will be to transform the mindset of policymakers and the public regarding the threats posed by coastal erosion and climate change. These issues are urgent, and the clock is ticking.”
Individuals within the community have come forward to help. “For the past several years, with financial help from international organizations, some of the community have planted thousands of mangroves and pine trees called filaos to attempt to slow the erosion and reclaim land that can then be used to farm and cassava, cabbages, melons, sweet potatoes, and other produce,” the photographer says.
For now, families are surviving and supporting each other as best they can, day to day. “A family I met whose home had been decimated by the sea was living at the tent site provided by the government,” Quamina-Woo tells me. “The mother was busy sewing fabric flowers to place outside the tent because her five-year-old kept getting turned around among the rows of identical blue plastic housing. She wanted her child to be able to distinguish theirs from the rest.”
Nicky Quamina-Woo is a member of Black Women Photographers, a global community bringing together Black women and non-binary photographers. To learn more about Black Women Photographers, visit their website, and follow along on Instagram at @blackwomenphotographers.
All images © Nicky Quamina-Woo.