Nouakchott was simply a dream for the generation that participated in the establishment of the state of Mauritania.
The Mauritanian government’s first meeting was held in this city, during the French occupation, on July 12, 1957. In 1958, Moktar Ould Daddah, Mauritania’s first president, laid the foundation stone as he declared the city the capital of Mauritania. Charles de Gaulle, then president of France, was attending. On July 24, 1957, before laying the city’s foundation stone, a decree was issued to declare it the capital of the Mauritanian region, instead of Saint-Louis, Senegal.
Nouakchott residents only numbered a few hundred back then, and the city lacked even the slightest elements of a modern city. It was a small village on the Atlantic Ocean with a desert climate, sitting on a land with no water.
In his memoirs, President Ould Daddah explained the reason behind picking Nouakchott as the capital. He wrote: "Since there was no adequate place in the center of Mauritania, Nouakchott was unquestionably the right city. Despite the distance that separates it from the eastern and northern regions, this city has several significant advantages. It is less than 200 kilometers [124 miles] away from the river. … The fact that Nouakchott is situated on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean should make it a seaport. This would be a great advantage for the future capital. The city of Nouadhibou also has this same advantage, but Nouakchott is better, since it is neither close to the north nor isolated."
The city's founding generation expected residents of Nouakchott to reach 20,000 by 1975. However, climate change begged to differ. Mauritania was hit by drought at the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s. Living became impossible in many villages, and their residents were displaced to Nouakchott. The capital's population reached 130,000 in 1957. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, the population reached half a million in approximately a decade. Thus, the capital started its journey with chaos, without any consideration for modern city plans. Signs of poverty increased and the city spirit diminished, mainly due to the Desert War (1975-91) and the overthrow of the civil order in a 1978 military coup.
Nouakchott still encapsulates Mauritania. It is a city dominated by paleness, where 46% of its million residents live below the poverty line. It has neighborhoods where houses are made of tin, and ones that are controlled by a minority that lives in the north of the city in the Tevragh-Zeina District. The city is divided into nine districts. It has no public squares, entertainment venues or cultural sites. The city has no cinemas, although it used to have 14 during the first civil order. Many say that the interest in culture and education was lost with the coups and the growing influence of the military.
The city also reflects the major gap between elements of Mauritanian society. Traveling from the northern and eastern districts to the southern districts feels as if one is traveling to another country. Most residents are Black African Mauritanians, and Arabs are almost nonexistent. Mauritania’s history had already witnessed battles between Arabs and Black Africans in 1989.
There are severe inequalities between the social and economic circumstances within the districts. Racism and inequality between social classes in Nouakchott are visible among students who attend primary public schools. Black Africans represent the majority in these schools, which are partially abandoned by the "Whites" [Arabs] due to the schools’ weak educational level. Arabs go to private schools for a better education, each according to his capabilities. This is alarming. When a generation is brought up without any sort of contact with other elements of society, it indicates the rise of a new obstacle that will stand in the way of future coexistence in a multinational country.
However, all of the above is not the main concern for the residents of Nouakchott. Their major concern is the news and environmental studies that assert their city will drown within 20 years. A study conducted by the North African States Regional Center for Remote Sensing (CRTEAN) verified the threat of the Atlantic Ocean covering Nouakchott and other close cities.
The World Bank also stated that Nouakchott was among the top 10 cities exposed to global warming, and, consequently, sea level rise. However, the sea’s threat is not the only concern of the Nouakchott residents. Today, some neighborhoods are witnessing water eruptions from beneath the ground itself. The residents’ lives are also disrupted by lack of sanitation. When it rains, the city turns into a huge swamp that makes it hard to move around.