Thursday, October 2, 2014

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Nigeria: The Need to Prepare for a Rainy Day

The devastation from Nigeria's worst floods in decades could have been reduced by better planning and preparation.
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A flooded Lagos street. Photograph by Dave Jackson.

Over the past few weeks, the worst flooding Nigeria has seen in at least half a century has led to deaths of hundreds of Nigerians, the displacement of over a million people, and the destruction of hundreds of thousands of hectares of farmland. Huge swathes of the country have been affected, particularly in central and south-eastern regions, with houses, bridges and roads devastated. Many displacement camps are now overcrowded and aid materials scarce, certain areas and cities are starting to suffer from shortages of food staples, some predict the loss of farmlands will endanger Nigeria’s food security in the longer-term, while others fear waterborne diseases could spread to epidemic levels.

President Goodluck Jonathan responded by calling the issue a “national disaster” and establishing a National Committee on Flood Relief and Rehabilitation to help those affected, saying at its inauguration: “the present administration will do everything possible to ameliorate the impact of this devastating flood on our people”.

This response is to be welcomed and the need for immediate and concerted relief action is urgent and crucial. At the same time, however, preventing similar events in the future requires an understanding of why the floods proved just so destructive, and a number of experts are pointing to the government and its lack of preparation.

Blame it on the rain

Nigeria has two rainy seasons, the first lasting from March to the end of July and the second commencing in early-September and ending around mid-October. The country often experiences flash floods in these periods, but this year the scale of latter rainy season was unusually intense.

In central Nigeria, which saw much of the worst flooding, heavy rains can lead the Niger River to overflow, requiring the Jebba and Kainji dams to be opened. This is what happened this September when, following weeks of intense rainfall, local authorities were forced to open the dams which were visibly overflowing and in danger of collapse.

Global warming has been pointed to a possible reason behind increased rainfall. In an article in the Nigerian Tribune, Iyiola Akande, the southwest zonal coordinator of the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), said that "there was an increase in the intensity and frequency of flood disasters in the world and that Nigeria was not an exception".

Preparing for a rainy day

Others, however, claim that the effects of the heavy rainfall could have been more effectively handled by a better prepared and coordinated government response.

Through the Flood Early Warning Centre, Nigeria’s Ministry of Environment issued a forecast of heavy rainfall in mid-September and warned of potential flooding in some parts of the country. But authorities failed to also take adequate steps to alert downstream communities or provide prevention and relief materials.

On the other hand, Nnimmo Bassey, executive director of Environmental Rights Action, suggested to Think Africa Press that another major problem was the “lack of coordination with the managers of the various dams in Cameroon and Nigeria”. He explained: “There ought to be systematic and controlled release of water from the dams before they get to catastrophic levels. This was not done. The result is what we are seeing.” The handling of the situation by Nigerian and Cameroonian authorities was, he said, “simply scandalous”.

Talking specifically about urban flooding, some such as Kayode Oyesiku, a lecturer at Olabisi Onabanjo University, have previously pointed to poor town planning and drainage in urban areas. “The major challenge over the years is that development comes before town planning. There is no drainage”, said Oyesiku. Indeed, urban flooding occurs primarily in towns located on flat or low-lying terrain, especially when little or no provision has been made for surface drainage or where existing drains are blocked by municipal waste and refuse.

Prevent, prepare, respond

Support for those affected by the flooding has come from Nigeria’s National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), the Red Cross, and some private organisations. They have rallied round to provide rice, tents and other relief materials. The federal government has also set up an inter-ministerial committee headed by the Minister of Environment to assess the impact of flood disaster in Nigeria.

On October 9, in an attempt to mitigate the crisis, President Jonathan announced the disbursement of N17.6 billion ($110 million) in financial assistance to the affected states and the government agencies responsible for disaster management.

Jonathan also inaugurated a National Committee on Flood Relief and Rehabilitation with the objective of assisting the federal government in its fundraising efforts. The committee is to be co-chaired by Aliko Dangote, Africa’s richest man and business mogul, alongside human rights activist Olisa Agbakoba, while the chairman of the telecoms company Globacom Mike Adenuga Jr. will serve as the chief funds mobiliser.

Olumide Idowu, Youth Engagement Officer of The Nigerian Youth Climate Coalition (NYCC) told Think Africa Press that this was a "bold step" but questioned the government’s choice of personnel. “Will they not turn these funds into a jamboree for party officials and friends? Our prayer is that the funds released will get to the affected masses”, he said.

Indeed, the need to get relief to the millions affected is highly urgent and the multi-faceted scale of the disaster will require plenty of resources, manpower and political will to tackle. At the same time, however, if Nigeria is to avoid a similar fate in the future, the government must also learn from its mistakes in realms from town planning and drainage to engineering and dam management to coordination within and between governments. If the menace of flooding is not honestly tackled, damage of the monumental scale witnessed this rainy season will be a recurring hazard for a people left to the mercy of nature.

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