THERE has been no respite from the heavens this year. From January, the rains have been unremitting, falling in torrents and raising concerns over flooding, disease and displacement of people. From a welter of forecasts, Nigerians had ample warning of the impending abundant rain and should shake off their lethargy and prepare to confront the dangers of this natural phenomenon.
Governments have no excuse not to act. Heavy rainfall has been recorded in parts of the country since the beginning of the year with a catalogue of horrors. Flash floods have washed away homes, farmland and property. Bridges have collapsed, as have culverts and roads, while trees, electricity poles and telecommunication masts have fallen. The rain has not discriminated in its spread. From the coastal regions where floods have been recorded in Lagos, Kwara, Bayelsa and Cross River states to the savannah and sahel zones, where Benue, Kaduna and Niger states have seen downpour and the attendant damage, the reality is stark.
For four years now, Nigeria has been experiencing high rainfall that has brought mixed blessings in some areas and outright grief in others. Officials of the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development cite improved rainfall for the steady increases in farm yields in recent years. However, for many communities, the bumper rain has been traumatic. Residents of Lagos and its environs will not forget July 10, 2011 in a hurry. It was a day that several hours of rain swamped homes, destroyed buildings, swept vehicles away and left about 30 persons dead. At least, 13 persons were also reported dead after flash floods in Ibadan, Oyo State that year.
As usual, the Nigerian Meteorological Agency had issued warnings that the coastal states and North-Western states should be prepared for heavy rainfall this year. In its Seasonal Rainfall Prediction 2014, NIMET warned of above-normal rainfall, especially in the South-West states and parts of the North-West. Accompanied by strong winds, lightning and storms, the agency urged states to mount counter-measures to avoid catastrophe. It had issued similar alerts to 12 states in 2013. But are the affected state governments ready? Lagos, which has borne the brunt of frequent downpour and floods over the years, has, in response to NIMET’s and its own findings, cleared drainage channels and canals, enforced environmental laws in markets and business premises and demolished structures that constitute potential hazards. Most other states have done very little and the Lagos effort has not been complemented by the local governments and residents whose filthy habits contribute in large measure to blocking gutters, drainage and canals. With floods also come water-borne diseases like cholera and typhoid fever.
To avoid catastrophe, there must be a radical change in our attitude to flooding. Heavier rainfall and flooding are worldwide issues and no part of the world is immune as a result of global warming, environmental degradation and the attendant changes in weather patterns. Scientists say that the earth’s temperature has increased by about 0.5 degrees Celsius over the last 100 years. That may sound small, but the United States Environmental Protection Agency said this was enough to influence an increase of 6-8 inches in ocean levels “enough to cause significant changes and natural disasters.” Researchers at the United Kingdom Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling say the Antarctic ice sheet (at the South Pole) is losing 159 gigatonnes of ice each year, double the rate in 2012 and is a major contributor to global rises in sea levels that are about 0.45 millimetres per year. And by April 2014, the Arctic (North Pole) sea ice had shrunk to 14.14 million square kilometres, having lost 610, 000 square metres since 2010. The implication is that more water is available for evaporation and coastal states, especially, are increasingly at risk of rain-induced flooding.
Our state governments need to take very proactive measures to protect lives and property. Deadly floods have hit South-Eastern and Central Europe, Asia and the US in recent times. Heavy rain, not seen in 120 years, in Serbia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Austria, Czech Republic, Poland, Macedonia, Hungary and Romania this month created floods and 2,000 landslides, leaving 62 persons dead in one week, 73 missing and hundreds of thousands displaced. In April, 34 persons died across several US states after rainfall caused floods that damaged over 2,000 homes and displaced thousands.
The lesson is clear; if more advanced nations suffer such losses, then our notoriously dysfunctional public institutions need to urgently prepare for the unexpected. We need to strengthen our emergency response system and, like advanced nations, train units of our armed forces for emergency rescue services. More environmental protection infrastructure should be put in place while environmental laws should be enforced. De-flooding and channelisation programmes of the states should be adequately complemented by the federal and local governments, while community association groups should help to clear the drainage and gutters. Lagos and other states should no longer tolerate the dirty habits of residents dumping their refuse on the streets, gutters and drainage. Offenders should be severely punished and incentives given to informants who can document offences.
Preventive measures such as special building codes and proper town planning should be adopted. Local governments need to develop well staffed sanitary health inspectorate departments and empower them to enforce environmental ordinances. It is the responsibility of LGs to ensure that all gutters, drainage and canals in their areas are permanently cleared.