Senegal: Cholera, malaria threaten thousands after worst floods in two decades

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[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

MEDINA GOUNASS, 21 Sep 2005 (IRIN) - A month after the worst floods in 20 years washed out the impoverished suburbs of Senegal's capital, Ibou Barro stands on his doorstep and waves to his neighbour, wading through the still-flooded street, her skirts hitched up to the thigh.

Swarms of tadpoles mill about in the rank greenish-brown water, clogged with rotting scraps of food, that for the last four weeks has covered the streets and courtyards of Medina Gounass, one of the many overcrowded shantytowns on the outskirts of Dakar.

"If the waters don't recede we'll wind up drowned," said Barro.

Like many of the suburbs to have sprouted around the Senegalese capital in recent years, Medina Gounass was built on swampy ground. So each rainy season, the low-lying basin close to the water table becomes flooded, to the surprise of newcomers among its 80,000 residents.

Those in the know habitually invest in sacks of sand and rubble to stop water from leaking into their homes. But this year's unusually heavy August downpours were too much even for those who took precautions.

According to a preliminary study by city officials, an estimated 183,000 people may have sustained damage of some kind from the flooding.

In response to the flood damage, the Senegalese government declared an emergency and announced a US $96.5 million plan to relocate some 60,000 flood victims and overhaul communities.

Medina Gounass, for example, was allocated a water-pump to remove the floodwaters.

But because of a shortage of funds, the city employees who work the pump "turn up in the morning with 10 to 20 litres of diesel oil and keep the pump running half an hour till the fuel runs out", according to resident Abdoulaye Badji.

A month ago, Badji, along with his wife and children, moved in next door with the Barro family, whose courtyard is one of the few to have escaped the deluge thanks to some pre-flood home improvement.

Stagnant waters draw mosquitoes

On the other side of the low stone wall dividing the two family properties, the Badji home is awash in brown water that has attracted terrifying swarms of mosquitoes.

Although some victims of the floodwaters are reluctant to leave home, officials warn that time is running out as the threat of malaria and waterborne epidemics like cholera, grows by the day.

Medina Gounass, for example, is one of the many shantytowns in Dakar to lack sewage works.

Dakar's 623 km of open and closed drainage pipes laid out to clear sewage and rainwater only cover the old city centre and inner suburbs, and a handful of residential areas.

"There are no drainage pipes or anything, that's why the water's stagnant," said Ibou's father, Pathe Barro, fingering his prayer beads in Medina Gounass.

At Dakar's large Fann hospital, the head of the infectious diseases ward, Papa Salif Sow, said flooding was responsible for the city's current outbreak of cholera. With floodwaters carrying rubbish, leaked sewage and the occasional rotting animal corpse, the hospital is treating 45 cholera sufferers a day.

"The floods have triggered an explosion in the number of cases," Sow told IRIN.

According to the health ministry, more than 2,000 people contracted the disease in Senegal in the first two weeks of September, and 46 died.

Government shelters

With the help of the Senegalese Red Cross and aid from France and Japan, the government has currently taken 5,600 homeless people under its wing, providing them with shelter in tents, schools and military barracks as well as food, said Colonel Mamadou Cisse, who is in charge of emergency relief.

In Medina Gounass, many residents are itching to leave the area rather than risk their lives. "I want to get out of here, even to one of the camps," said Daouda Sankho as he bailed water out of his bedroom before it reached the mattress, hoisted high on bricks.

Plans are afoot to open more sites designed to have a capacity of 150,000, Cisse told IRIN, and those can't come soon enough. A month after August's torrential rains, some existing camps for the flood victims are full to bursting, with people forced to sleep out at night.

To free up funds for flood relief and relocations, President Abdoulaye Wade last month proposed rescheduling parliamentary and presidential polls due in 2006 and 2007, instead holding the two ballots simultaneously. The idea was greeted with scepticism and allegations of political opportunism by the opposition.

But for many of the displaced, an end to their current plight is their top priority.

In nearby Thiaroye, where the military are running several camps for the homeless, Mor Diop and his family of 15 breathed a sigh of relief after finally finding a place to sleep after almost three weeks of searching.

"I've been coming here every morning with my family since September 1. All I want is to leave places where there's water," said the pensioner after being allotted space at a shopping centre still under construction. "I won't go away unless they kill me."

Sleeping out in the yard

Aliou Diallo, who runs a camp for 1,666 people from Medina Gounass that was set up in the Lycee Limamoulaye, said to be West Africa's biggest secondary school, told IRIN that resources were severely overstretched.

"We have no more room for the homeless in the classrooms. But people keep turning up and insisting, so we hand them mats and they sleep out in the yard," he said.

Aside from overcrowding, the homeless face less-than-ideal conditions of hygiene, said one emergency worker who asked not to be identified.

"The hygiene is deplorable, with mosquitoes and flies everywhere," he said, warning of the increased risk of diarrhoea and malaria. Only half of the displaced persons has a mosquito net and the makeshift camp's health centre lacks basic medicines.

Diallo said he was often forced to pay for drugs out of his own pocket. "My wage is supposed to be for me and my family, not for the homeless," he sighed.

Now, with the school year about to begin, the future looks increasingly uncertain for those settled in schools. Education Ministry officials who visited the Lycee Limamoulaye last week said the establishment would open for the new academic year on schedule on 11 October, meaning the homeless sleeping inside will have to go.

Awa Seck, who has been living in a classroom for two weeks along with 11 other people, said she did not know what she would do when the building became a school again.

Although Seck has put her name down on a list of homeless people due to be relocated into new homes in new communities built with proper drainage and sewage facilities, there has been no news on where or when the homes will be provided.

"Soon classes will resume," said Seck. "I'm totally dependent on the authorities and don't know what to do if I have to leave here when my house is still flooded."


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