SUDAN’S CAPITAL CITY has been through more than a week-long inundation as the Nile River overflowed its bank, destroying thousands of homes, drenching crops on farms, displacing no fewer than one million residents and leading to at least 90 deaths following heavy rainfall. The flood, reportedly the worst in the history of Sudan in the past hundred years, hit the confluence city of Khartoum in an unfamiliar manner, exposing the vulnerable population to economic stress, insecurity and health crisis such as water-borne infections in forms of cholera, skin diseases and malaria from mosquito bites. In an unprecedented but predictable incident that brought misery and suffering to the mostly vulnerable population, Sudan’s ordeal was not an isolated natural disaster in Africa in September of 2020. Remarkably, the rainfall which was rather higher in Sahelian region of Africa this year than in previous years brought about similar experiences in other major Sahelian cities of Niamey and Dakar in Niger Republic and Senegal respectively, submerging significant parts of each city to varying degrees.
The proximity of two of the cities to major rivers and the location of the third on a peninsula could be explained as responsible, in part because of the swelling of the rivers and possibly the ocean (for the peninsula) as a result of heavy rainfall and plenty of runoffs, leading to overfilled rivers overflowing their banks. Khartoum sits at the confluence of the White Nile and Blue Nile, while Niamey is on the bank of Niger River. Dakar overlooks the Atlantic. But all the three cities have something in common: their location on the Sahelian belt of Africa, which means they have similar vegetation cover, rainfall pattern and environmental temperature. The uniform and simultaneous experiences of Khartoum, Niamey and Dakar, all of which recorded varying degrees of fatalities during the flooding brought home the reality of climate change and the paradox of floods in drought-prone areas on the one hand and that of exposures to the threats of inundation by cities close to water bodies now, as exemplified by Jakarta, the political capital of Indonesia. Niamey, Dakar and Khartoum became epitomes of lackadaisical, non-responsive leadership and poor governance within the countries’ political systems.
Governance failures and absence of virile public institutions are largely responsible for those avoidable disasters, especially where the cities have no sustainability safety valves. The rather unplanned and uncontrolled urban sprawling as a result of the expansion of the slums and shantytowns create safety, security and health challenges that are beyond the capacity of the urban managers to cope with. Although the 2020 flooding of African cities is not limited to these three Sahelian cities, the experiences nonetheless provide a basis for introspection and proactive measures to prevent a repeat, especially as climate realities now signal the possibilities of annual recurrence. Environmental, economic and human statistics are either in short supply, outmoded or non-existent, or are simply ignored in planning and policy making. Over the years, the major rivers have been reduced to shallow beds as a result of years of silt deposition, making it easy for high volume of water to overflow their banks. Dredging activities, which should help de-silt the rivers, increase their depths and even make them navigable for waterway travels have hardly been a priority. Within the cities, drainage channels have been poorly maintained as houses built too close to them have narrowed them down. The recent ubiquitous use of plastic containers have become a menace, blocking water channels, forcing water to overflow public drainage channels.
Niamey, Dakar and Khartoum are unpleasant microcosms of African cities and offer sad commentaries about absolute lack of preparedness for the climate future. With so much destruction, deaths and displacements already, and diseases looming, Sub-Saharan Africa cities now have reasons for a rethink as their resilience is being put to the test. The 2020 estimated population of Niamey is 1,292,000, a 3.19 per cent increase from 1,252,000 in 2019, which was also a 3.13 per cent increase from 1,214,000 of 2018. In spite of its relatively small size, the devastation experienced in Niamey after a levee on the right bank of the Niger River gave way to heavy rains is a pointer to the infrastructural deficit and poor emergency preparedness within that rapidly growing city in particular, and the country in general. The exceptional rainfall in Senegal that left the area around Dakar underwater for days and resulted in six deaths should be a cause to worry. Still within the Sahel is Burkina Faso, a country that also recorded the deaths of a dozen of people during flooding in 2020. Coastal cities were not left out as flooding in Accra left in June left at least one dead, just as parts of Lagos, a coastal city in Nigeria, experienced the deluge that kept people in some parts of the city off the streets for some days.
Apart from urban inundation, the havoc wreaked by the floods elsewhere in the hinterland has proved that the countryside is also not a safe haven from floods as the experience in the month of May has shown in Kenya where heavy rains have caused floods and landslides. These did not happen without material and human casualties as an estimated 194 died while crops were destroyed as farmlands were swept away. The Kenyan experience was compounded by the threat of coronavirus and locusts invasion. In Nigeria’s Kebbi State situated in the north western fringe, an estimated $13 million worth of farm produce was lost to flooding as the state began to succumb to terrorism and banditry. The experiences of victims of flooding are similar. In Sudan, apart from effects on homes and families, public amenities and infrastructure take the hit. For instance, about 43 schools and 2,671 health facilities have reportedly been damaged across the country, with contamination of over 2,000 water sources, according the United Nations, in addition to the collapse of the Bout Dam in the south eastern Blue Nile province. A lot would be required for rebuilding and rehabilitation in all the affected places. How well equipped the affected countries are should be an area of interest in all the conversation about emergency responses and disaster recovery efforts.
Africa’s challenges are multifarious and growing in magnitude. Sudan, for the past nearly one year and a half, has been in political turmoil and economic crisis. The experience of Khartoum, 13 per cent of the entire Sudan’s population residing in riverbanks, easily provides an insight into the shades of economic crisis the country is up against. The same goes for Senegal or Niger, easily one of the poorest in Africa. Although institutional responses in form of humanitarian support from the African Union (AU) seem to be slow in coming to those affected countries, it is noteworthy that Qatar in the Middle East has responded to Sudan’s food plight within days of the flood. It is expected that, at this critical period, the AU’s Environment, Climate Change, Water, Land and Natural Resources would activate its work on enhancing the capacities of, not only affected countries, but of all member states in readiness for a robust response to the climatic changes through various mitigation and adaptation measures. AU’s Integrated African Strategy on Meteorology and the Africa Regional Strategy on Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) should now become fully operational.
The impact on Sudan, especially, is such that additional support will be needed to augment the $2.73 million allocated by the country’s government to help flood victims. Senegal’s rural and urban poor affected by the flood will need help too, just as would the victims in Niger Republic. It will be unsafe to treat these flooding experiences as isolated events or of temporary consequences. It is important to treat them as foreboding of more climatic extremes the hitherto drier Sahelian region of Africa will experience over the next century and to put the mitigating measures in place. The specificity of measures and responses will vary depending on regions or locations. But there are concerns that the awareness of, and access to, climate forecasts and other critical response equipment are either old-fashioned, non-existent or are simply not well communicated to appropriate end users. Although mass displacement of people has been infrequent, chances of increasing cases of environmental deterioration and increasing numbers of environmental refugees are becoming higher. African countries all need to be prepared for more of flooding, particularly in the urban environment, and brace for it. The adaptability and resilience of these burgeoning cities will tell a lot about Africa’s climate future.
Frontpage January 11, 2019