Heavy rainfall in Mauritania has once again left the country with serious flooding in urban and rural areas. In the cities, there are nonexistent or limited sewer systems; in the country side the wadi systems have flooded heavily, destroying dikes and digs. The rains have been so powerful that ancient desert mosques in Chinquitti (in Adrar) have been damaged or destroyed. The extent of the damage is severe, and demands attention.
In the south-central part of the country along the Tarik al-Amel highway, the towns that produce most of Mauritania’s domestic food — especially rice — are underwater and inaccessible by road. Mauritania’s food production has been extremely low for months (as has been laid out in multiple World Bank reports), which also complicates matters. Kiffa (in Assaba), Kaedi (in Gorgol), Ayounel Atrous (in Hodh el-Gharbi), Aleg (in Brakna) as well as other southern towns with (relatively) thick populations and the bulk of domestic food production have been isolated because of the flooding of the Tarik el-Amel, which links these towns and their surrounding populations to Nouakchott and the coast. Transport costs have risen as a result. (Rainfall figures can be seen here and here.)
Most troublesome is that the capital, Nouakchott, is largely cut off from the country’s interior towns, impairing the delivery of imports of any kind, particularly food and medical supplies. Domestic agriculture has suffered heavily due to droughts and mismanagement over the last three years; the floods have compounded this by shutting down roads making the delivery of external foodstuffs all the more important, as practically all imports enter the country at Nouakchott or Nouadhibou. It must be understood that the Tarik el-Amel, when it was built under Mokhtar Ould Daddah, was critical in making the southern towns economically viable by linking them to the coast and one another. Before the road was built, towns like Aleg were small outposts. The Tarik el-Amel (the “road of hope”) was built specifically to bring commerce and easy transport to rural areas of the country where enthusiasm for the national project was at first quite low.¹ (A signifiant part of the imports and exports for Burkina Faso and Mali go through Nouakchott as well, along this same road, though there is a rail link between Senegal and Mali.)
Like last year, the floods have come during Ramadan. The President was on holiday in Spain last year, but is in Nouakchott now. A significant portion of the cabinet and the upper bureaucracy has taken furlough abroad, mainly in Morocco. There is a worry among some who toil in the administration that the crisis is too much for the current government to take, cash strapped as it is and unprepared for the downpours as it was. Stormy winds in capital knocked over electrical wires, leaving exposed cables in the streets as around one major mosque, discouraging the faithful from entering. Libyan aid has been delivered and Emerati embassy is distributing food at iftar; Civil Protection and National Guard units are working to provide relief and evacuating families as many as 500 families from especially inundated areas in Nouakchott. Rebuilding and repairing bridges, dykes and the road systems will take a serious national project, likely with important outside contributions.
In the towns, well water supplies have been contaminated and many fear the spread of cholera and other sicknesses. Malaria, brought on by mosquitos attracted by muggy standing water, is also a major threat that common people hope will be staved off as medical aid arrives. “There will be a lot of green around afterwards, the pasture lands will improve. But when the harvests are good the locusts always come, we have learned this over time,” a Mauritanian from the interior told this blogger. All this bodes especially poorly for rural subsistence farmers, who often work land owned by tribal heads living in Nouakchott or elsewhere. As of now, their means of survival has been seriously disrupted and while they will likely endure, as they have in the past, there is a sense that rebounding, however modestly, will take considerable effort.
The situation is also troubling because it opens the door to other contingencies; what would happen in the even of an attempted coup? Or terrorist attack in the far interior? There is a limited capability to respond to other destabilizing events because of thoroughly damaged infrastructure and rightful humanitarian priorities. As many political and bureaucratic types have rightly said in the last two weeks, the first priority is victim assistance. Much popular irritation with the government’s recent “adventurism” stems from a sense that the country should be taking care of its citizens before “fighting France’s wars” as one Mauritanian politico put it to this blogger. For images and a long list of rainfall totals to date, view this al-Akhbar page.
1. [ Note that the Tarik el-Amel was built with Arab (Saudi and Kuwaiti) funds and Brazilian knowhow and technology. Other major infrastructure projects in Mauritania have been built with Arab or “eastern” money and assistance such as the country’s electrical power grids, the Friendship port, Presidential Palace and Olympic Stadium (all Chinese), the early road systems in the capital and the national television network (Iraq), the cellular networks (Morocco and Tunisia) and many major bridges (Iraq, Kuwait and Libya). Many Mauritanian technocrats eagerly explain “why Mauritania is a part of the Arab world” by noting the technical and humanitarian support wealthy Arab countries have given the country since independence. Mauritanians often note that “the Arabs” are the first to bring aid to the country during disasters with airlifts from Algeria and Tunisia, food and meds paid for by the Gulf states and Libya, and so on. Some bitterly remark that western countries, including France, built infrastructure (such as the northern railway systems) for their own purposes or with disastrous conditions laid out by the IMF and World Bank. Multiple Mauritanians have remarked to this blogger by email or in person things to this effect: “Where is France now that we are fighting their war?” This is not to downplay or deride important and substantial western contributions. ]