A water channel running through the centre of the bustling Senegalese capital, Dakar, may have been intended as a public recreation area and amenity, but the reality is different. Knee-level rubbish and stagnant water mean the channel, known locally as Canal 4, is generally considered to be a large, open sewer, and potentially poses a health hazard.
“I don’t understand how the government can ignore such a dangerous, and yes, disgusting problem,” said El Hadj Toure, a resident of Gueule Tapee, a neighbourhood split down the middle by the channel. “How could they have just built an open sewer here?”
The filth in the 23km long channel has been largely ignored by the government, 13 years after its renovation. Residents living near Canal 4 blame its current state on government incompetence and indifference, while experts and officials agree that local apathy has played a large role.
Health Ministry officials could not be reached for comment.
Winding between neighbourhoods, schools and markets before emptying out into the sea behind a large fish market, Canal 4 - up to 20 metres wide in places - is home to most of the surrounding neighbourhoods’ rubbish. A quick look over the edge at once reveals a deflated basketball, brightly coloured plastic bags, a slashed tyre and the rotting corpse of a goat, all floating in the slow-moving water. On 22 July IRIN noticed a tanker-load of black effluent being discharged directly into the channel.
According to locals, neighbourhoods surrounding the channel collect money every few years and hire individuals to clean it out. “When the rainy season comes, the mosquitoes swarm around the rubbish and standing water and people get sick,” Alioune Ba, a taxi driver living nearby, told IRIN. “We collect 1,000 CFA francs [about US$2] from each home and hire a truck and some workers to clean up the mess with shovels. Afterwards, the water flows again. But why does the neighbourhood need to do this? The government should show some concern for our well being, clean up the channel, and cover it.”
Photo: Uma Ramiah
According to the World Health Organization, standing water can act as a breeding site for mosquitoes and therefore enhances the potential for exposure to infections such as dengue, malaria and West Nile fever.
“The Senegalese government has recently realised that sanitation is a big issue,” Cheikh Toure, an environment and sanitation consultant based in Dakar, told IRIN. “They are now working to raise awareness about sanitation problems… Though the channel may pose a problem, it is not a top priority at this point.”
Mohamed Makalou sells jewellery and art next to the channel. “I used to sell on the Grande Corniche [the main road running through Dakar] but now that they are reconstructing it, I’ve been forced to move here, next to this filth,” he told IRIN. Makalou pulled a light blue Air France sleeping mask from his bag and waved it in the air. “Now, most of the day, I wear this over my nose so I don’t have to breathe in the stench.”
While locals blame the government, officials agree that the population has contributed significantly to the current state of Canal 4. “This is what happens in big cities where sanitation is not widely understood. People throw their rubbish over the edge with no concern for the ramifications,” Ibrahim Coundoul, chief architect for Canal 4’s reconstruction, told IRIN. “The water channel was not designed as a waste dump, and water cannot flow when it is filled with junk.”
Samba Diop, a student at the University of Dakar who lives near the channel, told IRIN he believed people needed to take responsibility for their actions as well. “The government should have informed neighbourhoods about the true function of the channel. Most now just assume it’s a sewage drain. But that is no excuse for locals to dump their rubbish there, just because it’s the easiest thing to do.”
Constructed in 1920, uncovered
Though most assume it to be a part of the city’s sewerage system, Canal 4 was originally constructed in 1920 to serve as a rainwater collection drain. In 1994 it was reconstructed in an effort to improve its functionality and aesthetic value. A look at the redesign blueprints gives the impression of a well planned, beautiful, tree-lined canal, providing the city with a public amenity and meeting place.
“The original channel was shallow and badly constructed, allowing for flooding during the rainy season. At least three children drowned in the channel before it was rebuilt,” Coundoul told IRIN. “The purpose of reconstruction was to provide the city with an attractive, enjoyable meeting place. But the redesign also served a purpose - after the rebuild, Canal 4 functionally and safely collected excess rainwater and channelled it towards the ocean.”
IRIN was unable to establish how much the rebuild cost or where the funds came from.
When asked why the channel wasn’t covered over during the rebuild, Coundoul told IRIN: “The vision was not mine. As an architect, I am given directions, and I follow them. I was asked to design the channel in the way it looks today.”
According to Coundoul, AGETIP, the Senegalese agency for job creation, hired him and was responsible for the rebuild. Officials at AGETIP insisted that the organisation was not in fact involved with the rebuild, though the AGETIP logo was clearly marked on the reconstruction blueprints.
“I don’t care who was responsible for building it,” said one Gueule Tapee resident. “Someone needs to step up to the plate now and do something about this mess.”