The new climate fund is a win for Africa—unless we compound the problems
In Senegal, fishing is more than a job. It is almost an art form, says Moustapha Dieng, the head of a fishing union in the northwestern city of Saint-Louis.
It is a cultural practice with spiritual significance, and a way of connecting with ancestors. Fishers have passed knowledge from father to son, he says, since the 16th century.
Whether and how this tradition—or even the country’s coastal communities themselves—will survive is unclear. Warming waters have decimated fish populations, and the rising sea is encroaching on traditional fishing settlements.
But without a simultaneous commitment to limit fossil fuel development, communities like Saint-Louis may continue to suffer more losses than gains.
The dash for gas
Ukraine is far from the shores of Senegal, but Putin’s war and the fossil fuel industry are putting pressure on Dieng’s community. Senegal is one of the African countries that put itself forward as an alternative source of gas for Europe in the wake of the Russian invasion.
At the border of Senegal and Mauritania, a consortium of energy companies has ridden political momentum to accelerate construction of the massive Greater Tortue Ahmeyim (GTA) gas project, which is located in a sensitive, biodiverse ocean region near Saint-Louis.
As if the plunging fish populations weren’t daunting enough, local fishers now report that they are being harassed and detained by navy boats in Senegal and neighboring Mauritania, and that the project’s well-guarded exclusion zones pose a threat to their livelihoods.
Projects like GTA are moving forward across the continent as multinational corporations scramble to develop Africa’s oil and gas reserves. In many cases companies locate their facilities in areas where heavy industry has already inflicted massive damage to the environment—sacrifice zones, where ruthless economics force people to live and work, regardless of the hazards.
At a time when the future of the planet depends on keeping fossil fuels in the ground, energy companies are engaged in a “dash for gas,” and the cost to the environment and to the host communities is incalculable.
The many faces of inequality
There is an honest debate about the inequality of climate change: are poorer countries like Senegal justified in tapping their fossil fuel reserves?
At the COP27 climate conference, many parties, including some African delegations, made the case for more fossil fuel investment.
Not all Africans are buying these arguments, especially not the continent’s grassroots climate activists. Their pushback, supported by reporting and data, is that these projects are filling Europe’s energy supply gap, not expanding energy access in Africa. Africa is already experiencing the harshest impacts of the climate crisis, and fears about the “resource curse” continue to loom large. And as The Guardian summarized a recent World Bank study, “Oil-rich countries in Africa systematically perform worse than other country groups in terms of voice and accountability, political stability, rule of law and the control of corruption.”
Fishing communities in sacrifice zones are of course deeply suspicious of the promise of fossil fuel development—confident it will serve up the same old poverty and inequality in a devastating new package.
Either way, you cross over
For many who live in the largely Indigenous settlement of Bargny near Senegal’s capital Dakar, where multinational companies are exploring for gas in the offshore Rufisque field, the economic promise of oil and gas feels empty. The town, whose beauty once attracted foreign tourists, is now positioned between a cement factory, a coal plant, a mineral export port, and an ever-rising ocean, and the air is thick with pollution. Flooding has damaged landmarks across Bargny, including a local cemetery—now in the shadow of the coal plant—that has been submerged by rising tides.
One more example of a climate and industry sacrifice zone. What will a new offshore facility bring?
Many residents aren’t waiting to find out and are already fleeing their troubled town. Some will relocate within Senegal, and some will head north through the Sahara to Europe in a journey known as Mbeukmi, Wolof fisher slang for “facing the desert.” Others will try their luck with the ocean: it takes roughly a week to reach Spain in a fishing boat.
Barça or Barsaax (“Barcelona or die”), they say. “Either way, you cross over,” explains an activist. “To the other side [Europe] or to the world of the dead.”
Whose pain, whose gain?
Rich countries have set the stage for the human and environmental tragedies that are unfolding in Saint-Louis and Bargny, not only with their greenhouse gas emissions but with their investments: the US government has poured more than $9 billion into oil and gas projects in Africa since the 2015 Paris climate agreement.
And although the Biden administration eventually agreed to the loss and damage fund at COP27, it was a fight to the finish
Meanwhile, fisherfolk and other communities that wield little political clout are facing life-threatening fallout from industrial practices and climate shocks.
The loss and damage fund represents a major win for frontline communities across Africa, but it faces headwinds—and questions. Who will contribute to the fund, who can access it, and for how long? The fact that rich countries continue to fail on multiple funding commitments—including their 2010 pledge to provide $100 billion a year in climate finance for developing nations—is cause for serious concern.
Equally worrisome is the risk that the new multinational dash for gas will offset potential gains from the climate fund by deepening the losses and compounding the damage, with communities like Dieng’s caught in the crosshairs.
For developing countries and their allies, wresting agreement from the world’s wealthiest nations to help pay for the consequences of climate change was just the beginning. Now, the real work begins.