Climate Change in Mauritania: Taking Action before it is too late

February 24, 2010

  • A desert country with a high poverty rate, fragile ecosystems, and difficult social conditions, Mauritania has a structural vulnerability that will be exacerbated by climate change
  • The World Bank Group is assisting Mauritania through the Climate Change Strategy for Sub-Saharan Africa, which is aimed at strengthening climate-resilient development

NOUAKCHOTT, February 24, 2010—“Even without climate change, Nouakchott is at risk of flooding, given that a large part of the city was developed in a depression zone named Aftout,”  warned Demba Marico, National Coordinator of Mauritania’s Adaptation to Climate and Coastal Change Project (Financed by the UN). “When people build there, flooding is to be expected.”

Built in the 1950s as the capital of the future Mauritanian State, Nouakchott was initially designed to accommodate approximately 8,000 by 1970.  Five decades later, Nouakchott is a sprawling agglomeration of close to one million inhabitants, with densely populated areas in flood zones such as the Sebkha, El Mina, Socogim PS, Ksar, and Dar Naim neighborhoods, as well as a sizeable portion of the residential areas in Tevragh Zeina.

Rainfall in August and September 2009 confirmed the fears of serious risk of natural disasters in years to come resulting from rising sea levels, greater erosion of coastal zones, destruction of the mangroves, and devastating floods.  Through the Adaptation to Climate Change project, Mauritania is seeking to strengthen the ability of local Sahelian authorities to cope with climate disruptions. To this end, experts are coordinating their activities with their colleagues in the subregion.  International financing for the city of Nouakchott has already facilitated the establishment of a pilot site to test the viability of adaptation measures to climate change.  This entailed erecting a coastal dune bar between the fish market, the Wharf, and the green belt as a system of protection for the city of Nouakchott. 

This coastal dune bar— Zbar in Hassania, one of the languages spoken in Mauritania—has steadily receded in recent years, as a result of both natural and man-made activities.  A walk close to Cité Plage reveals the effects—the collapse of the coastal dune bar which can no longer keep out water even when it rains lightly and during high tide.  According to recent studies commissioned by Mauritanian authorities, 79% of the overall surface area of Nouakchott could be under water in fewer than 10 years and in 20 years at most.  The worst-case scenario projects the disappearance of the city around 2050.

Adaptation, but at what price?

It now seems that the threat, which had been ignored for a long time, is being taken very seriously by Mauritanian authorities who are seeking to mobilize international assistance through the Adaptation to Climate and Coastal Change project, funded by the Global Environment Facility, the United Nations, and UNESCO.

The World Bank recently joined this partnership and sent a team of experts to Nouakchott early December 2009, ahead of the Copenhagen Summit, to provide local authorities with information on the different sources of financing and to lobby for the inclusion of environmental issues in development policies. “Mauritania has experienced significant droughts and projections related to climate variations and climate change are even more dire, with these conditions leading to more severe droughts with  extreme climate conditions,” warned Taoufiq Bennouna,  Senior Natural Resource Management Specialist at the World Bank.“ Flooding will also occur and sea levels will rise, hence the importance of protecting the city of Nouakchott, for example.  The situation in Mauritania is sufficiently alarming to warrant urgent action.”

Cognizant of the need for Governments to take urgent action to tackle the risk of climate change, the World Bank Group has devised a Climate Change Strategy for Sub-Saharan African countries aimed at strengthening climate-resilient development.  This strategy is composed of four main pillars: increasing adaptation opportunities; expanding mitigation opportunities; promoting knowledge and capacity building; and scaling up financing.  The latter pillar was featured on the agenda of a workshop organized in the Mauritanian capital in early December 2009.

Like many other African leadrers who attended the recent Copenhagen Climate Change Summit, Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, whose country  currently chairs  the Permanent Interstate Committee for Drought Control in the Sahel  (CILSS)  appealed for increased efforts to save his country from possible natural disaster.  Aziz has also requested the implementation of the  Bali Action Plan, adopted in December 2007, and called for a fair and equitable agreement that will be the outcome of the spirit of hope expressed in the Kyoto Protocol. “The planet’s future is in our hands; it is a responsibility we must take on with discipline and good judgment,” Aziz said.