/ 17 January 2024

Senegal’s Hann Bay, a paradise turned sewer, awaits clean up

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A man pushes a wheelbarrow of waste along Hann Bay in Dakar on November 22, 2023. Hann Bay, which stretches around 14 kilometres, used to be known as one of the most beautiful bays in West Africa, lined with traditional fishing villages, villas, and tourist attractions. (Photo by JOHN WESSELS/AFP via Getty Images)

On Dakar’s long Hann Bay beach in Senegal, a lone figure with a shovel and wheelbarrow tirelessly picks up mounds of rubbish in such quantities that the task takes on an almost mythological air.

The smell is acrid. A few metres from the man, a pipe carries a black mixture of household and factory wastewater into the Atlantic.

Once considered one of the most beautiful coves in all Africa, the former idyllic stretch of fine sand about 20km long, adjacent to the port of Dakar, has become the dumping ground for an increasing population and ever-expanding industry.

Most of Senegal’s manufacturing industry is along the bay and discharges its waste directly into it. Ocean pollution is at worrying levels.

The government has been promising to clean up the area for more than 20 years. 

And a clean-up project launched in 2018 with financial support from the French Development Agency, Invest International, the Chinese Development Bank and the European Union has stalled.

The National Sanitation Agency has just announced the resumption of the work that has been suspended for months. Locals have long been begging for real change.

“We’ve been told for years that there’s a project, but nothing changes. I don’t believe in it any more,” said Daouda Kane, who is sitting on the seafront. 

A few metres away, a woman is pouring the remains of her lunch pot onto the shore, which is teeming with insects.

“Here, you cast your nets and bring in rubbish, and you get sick,” Modou Ndong. 

In some places, it is almost impossible to see the sand beneath the rubbish. Every few hundred metres a sewage pipe discharges into the sea, turning the water blood-red at the end of the slaughterhouse pipe and pitch black from the chemical industry and the tannery.

Anyone who gets too close will feel a burning in their throat. 

Amidou Sonko, a marine specialist with the French National Research Institute for Sustainable Development, has confirmed the “high toxicity” of the area. His analyses revealed concentrations of E coli bacteria 13 to 100 times higher than the permitted limit, and the presence of salmonella. 

He also observed quantities of enterococci, microplastics, aluminium, chromium and zinc that far exceeded standards. Such levels pose a threat to human skin, lungs and eyes, but also to biodiversity, he said.

The development of certain species is also affected in this natural breeding ground for fish.

Nonetheless Seyni Badiane swims with his daughters aged two and five about 30m from a canal that discharges green water. 

“This is the only beach in the neighbourhood, so we come here,” he said. “We’re Africans, so we’re used to it.”

Mbacke Seck, who has been campaigning for over 25 years to clean up the beach and nearby waters, lamented, “We can’t understand this delay. The need is there, the money is there. The harm on our daily lives is there. What is preventing this project from going ahead?”

A French company, Suez, is building a wastewater treatment plant on the coast to treat 26 000 cubic metres a day for 500 000 inhabitants. It was due to start operating in early 2025, according to the French development agency AFD, one of the main donors.

But part of the work has been suspended for more than a year and a half after the company responsible for laying the main pipe linking the port area to the treatment plant went bankrupt, said Alassane Dieng, project coordinator at the national sanitation agency.

“The big difficulty is convincing industry to participate,” said Dieng, despite occupying 63% of the urban area according to a 2018 study.

Under the plan, the various industries are to be connected to the network on condition that they install pre-treatment units, and pay an industrial charge. 

If they do not comply with the rules, a “very dissuasive” pollution tax is planned, much higher than the one in force today, warned Dieng, who said the project would be completed by the end of next year.

In the meantime, beachgoers use Hann Bay at their peril.