City Stories | Saint-Louis, Senegal: Inter-Municipal Approach for the Safeguard and Enhancement of the Mangrove by the Local Authorities

2023-07-20 16:19:05

Editor's notes

Cities have always been a source of innovation, and outstanding urban innovations will serve as a guiding reference for cities around the world to find new solutions. The report Learning from the 5th Guangzhou International Award for Urban Innovation features interviews with the protagonists and stakeholders involved in the fifteen shortlisted initiatives of the 5th Guangzhou Award and an evaluation of their systemic impact and global relevance. This section will share the knowledge and experience of urban governance innovation with readers by selecting excellent urban innovation cases from the report.

Along the West African coast, rivers from the interior of the continent empty into the Atlantic Ocean. At many of these river deltas, where freshwater commingles with saltwater, fragile mangrove ecosystems thrive in this low-salinity marine environment. Mangroves are biodiversity hotspots and protect the land behind them from flooding. They also provide habitat for aquaculture resources like shrimp and mussels. 

The Senegal River is no exception, with nearly 2,800 hectares of mangrove growing in the river delta inside the jurisdiction of the historic city of Saint-Louis and four other municipalities that are located in the Senegalese department of Saint-Louis. Since the 1970s, however, these mangroves have been suffering. Rapid urbanization has led to the construction of dykes that drain water sources for the mangrove in order to dry out land for housing. Humans cut down mangroves to harvest plants or make charcoal. The natural water cycle has been disrupted by anthropogenic climate change and the region may go years without consistent rainfall.

In 2009, a study estimated that the Senegal River delta’s mangrove was disappearing by 10 hectares per year. That alarming statistic was a wake-up call for the local governments that share the delta. “We have the northernmost mangrove in West Africa,” said Amath Dia, Secretary General of the Saint-Louis Departmental Council. “If we don’t do anything, we’ll end up with zero hectares.” 

At first, the municipality of Saint-Louis proceeded alone in an attempt to stop mangrove degradation and begin restoration. But this environmental issue was not confined just to Saint-Louis even though it is home to 87.4% of the delta’s mangroves. Instead, the neighboring municipalities also had a role to play. Senegal has allowed inter-municipal agreements since 1996 and formalized them in 2013 under Act Ⅲ of Decentralization. With permission from the national government, Saint-Louis recruited four neighboring municipalities to form an intermunicipal agreement to address the mangrove crisis. 

“The law allows us to come together and address problems together,” Dia said. “But we are not the bosses of the municipalities. Each one is autonomous with its own competencies.” 

The five local governments are supported on the ground by the Agènce Régionale de Développement (Regional Development Agency, or ARD) and an NGO, Le Partenariat (The Partnership) that provides technical services for local governments. These implementing partners execute a diverse range of activities to improve the health of local mangrove ecosystems. They run environmental education programs for school children and recruit community elders to share stories about the value of the mangroves in their abundant heyday. The partners estimate they have reached 80,000 people in the last nine years. They also plant mangroves and estimate that more than 50 hectares have been restored, the ecosystem is now growing at 7% annually, and the rate of degradation has been reduced by one-fourth. 

The inter-municipal agreement has also led the five local authorities to take concrete steps to protect the mangroves. First, they agreed on an urban development boundary to prevent further destruction of mangroves for new construction. Second, they moved a landfill away from a sensitive mangrove zone. Third, they have invested public funds in water management infrastructure. 

Despite these successes, the nature of an intermunicipal agreement, in which each member is autonomous, leads to considerable give and take. “There is not the same amount of mangrove in each municipality, so engagement is difficult to judge,” Dia said. “Saint-Louis has more mangrove, Gandon has less. Saint-Louis has more resources, but Gandon has more land area.” 

For civil society groups who have been working on mangrove protection and restoration for years, this level of local cooperation is a welcome step forward. “The importance of the inter-municipal agreement is permitting the municipalities to work in synergy,” said Moussa Niang, president of the Community Network for Mangrove Protection. “That way, if each municipality wants to do a project, they can double their effort. It’s better than each structure working on its own.” 

Niang describes her network as the “bras armé” (strong arm) of local government, with people on the ground that have spent considerable effort mapping the mangrove ecosystem in order to inform public policies like the urban development boundary. 

While Saint-Louis’s efforts are encouraging, international mangrove experts did not consider the intermunicipal agreement to be particularly cutting-edge. “It is a good idea to include more than just one small place, but we see approaches that can be taken by the whole nation,” said Mangrove Action Project Executive Director Alfredo Quarto. He pointed to El Salvador’s Ministry of the Environment and Tanzania’s Forest Services Agency as two national government entities that have adopted mangrove restoration best practices. 

Quarto also felt that Saint-Louis’s efforts were short on details. “Are they planting in mudflats or seagrass bands, and what kind of mangroves? I couldn’t really judge much about what they are doing to assess how effective it is,” he said. “While it sounds generally good, the specifics are what counts.” 

But for Saint-Louis and its neighbors, the value of the inter-municipal agreement goes beyond mangrove restoration. When a breach in the Langue de Barbarie, a sandy peninsula along the Atlantic coast, led to the destruction of several houses without a plan to address the wreckage, an intermunicipal agreement helped negotiate a land transfer to the Saint-Louis local authority so that it could clean up the properties. 

“These mechanisms are very important to regulate conflicts, especially financial ones,” said Dia.

Author:Gregory Scruggs

Journalist and freelance writer with a focus on urban affairs.
The Guangzhou International Award for Urban Innovation is co-sponsored by the City of Guangzhou, the United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) and the World Association of the Major Metropolises (Metropolis). The aim of the Guangzhou Award is to recognize innovation in improving social, economic, and environmental sustainability and good urban governance in cities and regions and, in so doing, to advance the prosperity and quality of life of their citizens. So far, five cycles have been held, attracting over 1,300 initiatives worldwide. It has become a global platform for city-to-city learning on urban innovation and the documentation, dissemination, and analysis of the local implementation of global agendas including SDGs and New Urban Agenda (NUA). The 5th cycle of the Guangzhou Award, held in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, received 273 submissions from 175 cities and 60 countries around the world.

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