When Awa and her neighbors looked up at the black clouds coming from the shore, they knew that their families were in trouble. The rainy season had already brought heavy downpours over the past three weeks. In her neighborhood of Keur Massar in the suburbs of Senegal’s capital Dakar, large puddles lingered on the ground saturated with water, and drainage systems were clogged.
That night, Senegal saw 200 mm of rainfall in 24 hours – almost half of the annual average in the region of Dakar. Rainwater rose to 70 cm in houses across Awa’s neighborhood. In the middle of the night she and her family waded out of the house, leaving behind most of their belongings - mattresses, couch, clothes, cereal bags, school supplies - floating in filthy water as the latrines had overflowed. On her way to higher ground, Awa thought of the days and weeks ahead: how would they repair, replace and rebuild? Would the kids get sick? Her heart sank as she thought about the future.
Awa (not her real name) told her story to World Bank staff surveying the impact of devastating floods in Senegal in September. The floods affected more than 100,000 people and damaged thousands of houses.Entire neighborhoods in the regions of Dakar and Saint-Louis had to be evacuated, and resettlement camps were hastily put together to provide shelter to those who lost their homes.
But the Senegalese authorities had prepared for shocks like this by putting in place an “adaptive” social protection system than can scale up quickly and provide timely support to households impacted by floods. The government in Dakar had developed a methodology to target assistance to the most affected households, informed local authorities, trained frontline staff, and procured a payment agency.
Three days after Awa had to leave her flooded house, she was visited by social workers from the national social safety net program, who took her name down and assessed the extent of damages. Lists of impacted households were then cross-checked against the National Social Registry of poor and vulnerable households. A differentiated compensation scheme was defined according to poverty levels and payments were processed. Less than 10 days after that fateful night, Awa received about US$ 300 in her mobile money account. Across the country, an estimated 15,000 households are poised to receive these cash transfers.
This year’s seasonal rains have been much more intense than normal (see Figure 1). Flooding has extended beyond Senegal across the entire Sahel region all the way to Sudan and Ethiopia. – a severe threat to livelihoods in a region where over 40% of the population live below the poverty line. Four in 10 households – often the poorest – also reported having suffered from the effects of climate shocks like droughts or floods over the last three years. When shocks hit, people like Awa are often left with no choice but to reduce their food consumption, sell productive assets or take children – often girls – out of school. These negative coping strategies have a long-term impact on their resilience capacity and human capital.
Figure 1: This year’s seasonal rains in the Sahel have been much more intense than normal
To protect these households against climate shocks, Senegal and other Sahelian countries have started to invest in preparedness through building “adaptive” social protection systems that complement efforts to upgrade resilient infrastructure like drainage networks. For example, with the help of climate early warning systems to predict rainfall or droughts, countries can anticipate impacts on people and quickly scale up cash transfers in response – like Senegal now. Moreover, adaptive social protection strengthens households’ resilience by helping them diversify livelihoods towards activities less vulnerable to climate change.
- First, upfront investments in delivery and information systems, especially comprehensive social registry and robust payment systems, are a necessary precondition for swift crisis response and boosting resilience. In the past five years, Senegal has created a National Social Registry of 550,000 poor and at-risk households. With it, the Senegalese authorities were able to quickly identify the poor households most affected by the floods and set up a payment system using mobile payment operators.
- Second, the size of the social safety net matters. While coverage is low in most African countries, Senegal’s social safety net operates at scale, covering 316,000 poor households or close to 18% of the population. This is accompanied by a network of social workers which extends across the entire country and enhances critical institutional and delivery capacity.
- Third, swift crisis response requires investments in climate early warning systems with clear protocols for triggering cash support and prepositioning financing that can be drawn upon quickly. As Awa’s community can testify, when the water rises, time is of the essence.
New research shows that climate change risks pushing 130 million people into poverty by 2030. This alarming outlook is a call to governments for action, in the Sahel region and beyond, to advance policies to boost people’s resilience to the impacts of droughts, floods or cyclones. Building robust adaptive social protection systems is an essential start.