FASS MBAO, Senegal - Torrential rains have lashed Africa's western coast for the past three months, killing 159 people and flooding the homes and businesses of more than 600,000, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs.
They include the patients of one of Burkina Faso's largest hospitals who had to be carried out on gurneys after water invaded the wards. They include those living on the banks of a river in northern Niger, whose homes were swept away when a dike burst under the weight of the rain. And they also include tens of thousands of people whose homes took on a foot or less of water and whose ordeals are not a priority for overwhelmed emergency response teams.
While the rains have been extreme, people are also to blame, said Col. Singhane Diagne, spokesman for Senegal's firefighters. During the droughts of the 1970s, people began illegally building houses in the low-lying marshes that surround Dakar, the Senegalese capital. When the drought ended and the rains returned, these bowl-shaped neighborhoods began to flood.
"Every year we pump the same houses. Not just once. Over and over," Diagne said. "These people need to leave."
Among the six countries where the flooding has been most severe - Senegal, Sierra Leone, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Ghana - the neighborhoods most affected are the poor ones. Typically these communities are the result of urban sprawl, built without municipal approval, using unsafe materials. In Ouagadougou, the hard-hit capital of Burkina Faso, many of the flooded homes were made of nothing more than clay.
As the rain continues to come down, families are waging individual battles with water. About 20 miles from Fass Mbao, in the flooded suburb of Tivaouane, 37-year-old Mansour Ndiaye tries to scoop water into a bucket using a large sponge. "I'm doing the best I can," he said.