The Complex Impact of Climate Change in West Africa

Instead of looking at the visually obvious consequences of climate change in West Africa, J.B. Russell rather focused on its effect on economic development and everyday life.

© J.B. Russell, from the series Forgotten Enclaves: Casamance & Guinea Bissau. In a landscape of devastated mangroves along the banks of the Soungrougrou River in the Casamance region of Senegal, a fisherman pulls in a largely empty net. Locals and many experts believe that drought and rising sea levels caused by climate change have resulted in the increased salinization of the mangrove ecosystem. Marsassoum, Senegal. 05/12/2015.

“West Africa has been affected in significant and concrete ways by climate change and little is reported about it in the media”, explains J.B. Russell, who has been traveling on and off to Guinea Bissau and the Southern province of Senegal, Casamance. A region with a high density of mangrove forest, it hosts people whose cosmogony and lifestyle are based on its existence. This precious eco-system is moreover claimed by scientists to be an excellent carbon sink, essential in the fight against global warming.

© J.B. Russell, from the series Forgotten Enclaves: Casamance & Guinea Bissau. Fish drying on wooden racks along the beaches of Casamance. Thousands of tons of fish are smoked, salted, dried and exported throughout West Africa from the region, playing a crucial role in the local economy. Kafountine, Senegal. 08/11/2014.

Climate change has brought to the region long periods of drought as well as strong storms. Accumulated, the two phenomena have turned the fresh water of the mangrove estuaries increasingly salty, putting their survival at great risk. Russell's photos feature fields of dying mangroves seemingly calcined, in the background of an empty fishing net. The extinction of mangroves indeed brings multiple problems. “There is a domino effect in terms of environmental impact, such as the decline of the fish stock that reproduces itself there. This is tremendously affecting people’s lives as they mainly rely on fishing”, Russell explains. It goes the same for rice fields that are either destroyed by storms or weakened by a salty ground.

© J.B. Russell, from the series Forgotten Enclaves: Casamance & Guinea Bissau. Bassirou Sambou submerged in an estuary that runs through the mangroves near his community in the Casamace region of southern Senegal. Mangagoulack, Casamance, Senegal. 17/04/2016.

What is remarkable in the region though is the awareness of the situation, and the impulse it arouses in locals to seek solutions. “Diola people are quite a unique culture in the region. Their culture is profoundly linked to nature and they are aware of the urgency to protect it. They are conscious of the changes that have been happening in the past 10 years – some human made, some caused by climate change – and are making efforts to find solutions and preserve the environment”, Russell adds.

This is the case of women who scrape the dirt crust of rice fields, take it to the river's edge and do solar salt production, which is both easier and energy efficient. Another example is that of Bassirou Sambou who, with his friend Salatou Sambou, carried on a program of mangrove reforestation and managed to have the entire area declared an Area of Aboriginal and Community Heritage. “That means that they decide when and where people can fish, harvest oysters, cut mangroves, etc., according to their own tradition and experience”, Russell explains. This offers a glimpse at what we can do to fight climate change.

Read more about it on J.B. Russell’s PHmuseum profile.

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