‘A regional symptom of a global problem’: Climate change in Senegal

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Greta Rybus spent a month photographing climate change in Senegal

She focused on two communities: the coastal community of fishermen and the inland community of herders and farmers

CNN  — 

In March, Greta Rybus spent a month working on a photo series in Saint-Louis, which is called Ndar in the Wolof language. It’s about 250 kilometers (155 miles) north of Senegal’s capital, Dakar. Her photo series focuses on the effects of climate change on two communities: the coastal community of fishermen and the inland community of herders and farmers.

It was at dawn one morning when Rybus said she really realized the extent to which environmental conditions impact these communities. That day, Rybus woke up with the intent of simply photographing the fishermen as they prepared their boats. That never happened.

“(There) ended up being a pretty high tide that day … (that) was starting to eat up several homes,” Rybus said. “I was watching people move their furniture and TVs and all of their belongings out the front of the house, while the back of the house just fell into the ocean.”

As this happened, Rybus said community members – from little kids to older women and men – were rushing to support the shore with fishing nets and chunks of concrete in bags.

“I felt like I had stumbled onto a breaking news scene,” she said.

This situation is seen in photo No. 7 in the gallery above, where a man looks out an open door. Instead of seeing what was once a room, his sight is flooded with the reality of water consuming part of his home.

Photographer Greta Rybus

While there is too much water on the coastline, causing erosion and wiping out homes, Rybus said that inland, there is too little water. This notion of too little and too much is achieved aesthetically and compositionally in Rybus’ photo series as well. She notes how some of the photos feel very sparse while others feel very claustrophobic.

Those who live inland rely heavily on the rainy season. They used to be able to predict when there would be rain, but Rybus said that because rain has now become so inconsistent and infrequent, it is affecting people’s abilities to cultivate crops and feed their animals.

In some cases, climate change has become so detrimental to people’s livelihoods that they have to find other means of making a living, such as by taking jobs as drivers in the city or working for others in neighboring towns.

“I met with … one of the men, Idda, who’s a herder,” Rybus said. “He could explain theories behind climate change perfectly. He knew exactly what is happening, and he also could tell me what the rains had been like 10 years ago and 20 years ago, 30, 50. He’s a man in his 70s, and he has knowledge passed down to him by his father or his grandfather or other relatives.”

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    People living both on the coastline and inland have a strong relationship with and awareness of their environment. Although these communities feel the effects of climate change first-hand, this is something that affects everyone, everywhere – whether severely or subtly.

    Rybus’ images are therefore not solely about this one particular area of the West African nation. They are about what is taking place and being felt across the globe.

    “Every place will experience climate change in its own way. … It’s not an isolated thing that’s happening in isolated places. It’s happening in varying ways all over the globe.” Rybus said. “All of our stories are intertwined with our environment and our relationship to the world around us. Even if we live in a city or we live in a rural place, we’re really dependent on what nature can give us.”

    Rybus emphasized the importance of recognizing that while we may be discussing the climate, we are also discussing human lives.

    “Oftentimes, larger issues are more influenced by climate than we think,” she said. “And as time goes by and as time goes by without effective climate change policy put into place, I think we’ll see a lot of issues becoming worse because of the influence that our climate and environment has over the lives of people.”

    The Senegalese government has been responding and paying very close attention to climate change and its effects on the nation. Rybus said she hopes that it is the voices of people such as those in Senegal that will be factored into discussions about the environment, especially now during the COP21 climate change conference in Paris.

    “This is a regional symptom of a global problem,” she said. “Climate change is something that we can work on and if we work on it properly, if we approach it soon and really look at the systems that we have in place now, it’s actually a beautiful opportunity to address the ways that we operate.”

    Greta Rybus is a photographer based in Portland, Maine. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.