The Changing Siné-Saloum Delta

Birds taking flight from a pool in the salt flats just north of Palmarin.

Birds taking flight from a pool on the salt flats just north of Palmarin.

The Siné-Saloum is the picture of ecosystem adaptation.  Freshwater from two rivers, the Siné and the Saloum, meets the salty water of the sea.  Mangroves thrive in this brine and spread their root tentacles out a few centimeters at a time, trapping delta detritus and providing a scaffold for its accretion to neighboring land.  Oysters and shellfish cling to the mangrove roots when the tide is in, and then are exposed to hungry animals (including humans) as the saltwater retreats back to the sea.  Shells, piled up after humans extract and smoke their conch meat, later become the foundation for new islands. All kinds of fresh and salt water birds thrive, in many different shapes, sizes, and hues, including cranes, pelicans, egrets, oystercatchers, plovers, herons, storks, curlews, sandpipers, and ibises.   Lonely Planet sums it up well:  “In the [180,000-hectare] delta landscape, shimmering flat lands dotted with palm groves sit next to salt marshes and savannah woodlands, while the coastline is framed by lush greens, long sand banks and lagoons.”

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Sunset over the Atlantic.

We traveled to this region several hours south of Dakar by car in late October and stayed in an ocean-side campement in the village of Palmarin.  When sitting on the fine white sand, watching the sunset each night, we could turn to the north and see the rusted hulk of a freighter that had run aground in shallow water some 25 years ago.  One of our traveling companions, Jean-Marie, was there when it happened, camping on this same beach while working as a volunteer (the French equivalent of Peace Corps).  The sailors were evacuated safely.  Later, villagers helped much of the cargo and valuable parts of the ship itself to “adapt” to its new environment, as they were reused and recycled in local homes and businesses.


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Traveling through a labyrinthe of red mangroves in small pirogues.

We drove about 10k to the nearby fishing village of Djifer, which is now on the tip of the pencil thin peninsula separating the Atlantic Ocean from the Saloum River.  Here we picked up a pirogue for a trip through the mangroves.  As the boat motored to Guior, one of several islands in the delta, our guide told us about the changing weather patterns, rising sea level, shifting fish patterns, and the impact on the local fisherman.  He hadn’t read the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment report but believed in climate change and stood ready to catalogue its effects.  We passed the Pointe de Sangomar island on our right.  Yup, this landmark is called both an island and a point in the same breath.  As our guide explained, until about 20 years ago, when the river water broke through to rush into the ocean, the point was the southern most tip of the skinny peninsula.  Now it is a deserted island.  Jean-Marie told us stories of how he would drive his little car on the beach, from the shipwreck down to this new island.

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Hard-working mangrove roots.

After visiting the village of Falia, which along with Dionewar are the two oldest human settlements on Guior, we stepped into smaller pirogues to explore the bolongs (creeks) and mangroves that encase them. We quietly slid through “forests” of mostly red mangroves, gliding past large, leather-like leaves and complex webs of roots that look like stilts.  Up close and personal, we could see the inner workings of how this tropical evergreen thrives in salty tidal mud flats and inlets by constantly replicating itself.  The red mangrove’s seeds germinate in its fruit while still hanging on the tree, producing a long stem called a “radical.”  When the ripe fruit falls off, the radical inserts itself into the mud and instantaneously becomes the root for a new plant.  These tangled root systems are the ultimate multi-taskers, trapping silt and floating debris (like their own dead leaves) and packing it all down into new, fertile ground for more baby mangroves to take hold in.  In this fashion, as the mangrove stands expand toward the sea, their old growth ancestors inland, unable to quench their thirst for salty water, eventually die out and leave rich soil in their wake, ready for cultivation.

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A garbage dump just down the way from a mangrove swamp.

People in these parts have figured out how important mangroves are for stopping coastal erosion and thus keep from killing them.  Our guide described how some oyster harvesters would hack off entire roots to get at them, but that local women now knew to remove the shellfish by hand, without disturbing the hard-working root system.  He shrugged his shoulders when saying that this sustainable (called durable in French) approach just made sense, for the people who lived off the oysters needed them to be there year after year, generation after generation.  But still the basics of sanitation remain elusive:  not 10 steps from a mangrove restoration zone (funded through a U.N. agency), we found acres of garbage, strewn on both sides of the road – the local dump.


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