On June 3rd, 2015, hundreds of people died, because it rained.
It always rains this time of the year so there was nothing particularly surprising about this rain. People reacted the way they always do when it rains, seek refuge, wait out the rain, and go about their business after the rain subsides.
Except this was no ordinary day and the people who found themselves at the Kwame Nkrumah Circle near the GOIL filling station, their families and friends and the whole nation, will find out why. No one knew that the GOIL filling station was a danger zone, no one could have predicted that a mixture of gas leakage, floods, and the sight of fire would result in the deaths of hundreds of people.
That night, 154 people died, most of the bodies were burned beyond recognition.
Four years later, families are still waiting for their loved ones who went missing that night to come back home. 150 people sustained various forms of injuries that left them permanently disabled in a country that has close to no social and financial support for the disabled.
We still do not know those names of the people who died that day. We could have been them, the only thing that separates us from them is luck. We were lucky. We were not at the wrong place at the wrong time. But, how long will we continue to remain lucky?
Accra is no stranger to floods, the City has been battling with floods since the early days of independence. According to a report by the Daily Graphic, Accra had experienced at least 10 floods prior to the June 3, 2015 disaster. We experienced flooding in June 1958, July 4, 1968, July 5, 1995, June 13, 1997, June 28, 2001, May 5, 2010, June 22, 2010, February 24, 2011, May 31, 2013, and June 6, 2014.
From this timeline, it is clear that successive governments did not do enough to put in place strict preventive measures to ensure the future generation does not deal with the wounds of floods. At the time of Nkrumah’s government in 1959, the population of the city was manageable.
At that time, certain civic duties could have been ingrained in the people to abide by strict sanitation standards, these measures would have been the norm for the next generation and maybe they would have contributed to decreasing the impact of floods today. But that’s in the past, we can’t change the past, we can only learn from it.
But have we learned?
Last year, on the 18th of June, Dr. Ayah Hayfron, a young doctor and mother of an 18-month-old child, died because she was driving in the rain.
Less than two months ago, April 14, 2019, Warrant Officer Jabez Arthur and his wife, Warrant Officer II Sarah Kuadzi were traveling with Alice and Georgina Arhin in the back seat. Georgina was traveling with an eleven-month-old baby. They all died, because they were driving in the rain. The eleven-month-old baby is still missing.
For many Ghanaians living in flood-prone areas, the sight of rain represents loss; the loss of your neighbor’s life, the loss of your aunt’s business, the loss of your family properties. Whenever it rains, there will be floods, you will pack up what’s left of your properties and hide them somewhere dry.
You will gather your children and look for shelter anywhere, the journalists will come to interview you about your situation, they will ask what you want the government to do about it, a few politicians will come around to make promises.
When the rainy season is over, public officials will forget about the commitment they made to end the floods, life will go on, until the next rainy season, the floods will come again, life will be unbearable again, and you will live this over and over and over again.
Unfortunately, this story has no happy ending, it’s your reality, you were born into it and there is nothing you can do but manage it as your parents did before you.
Do you feel helpless?
Do you feel upset?
Do you want to stop reading now?
Taking all the above into consideration, it’s easy to empathize with those who have simply given up hope. But you and I cannot afford that luxury, we know better so we must demand better.
Whose responsibility is it to stop the floods? Before we get into the allocation of responsibilities, we must first take a look at some of the causes of the floods and what we can do the decrease them.
Let’s start with the obvious, sanitation issues.
“The way and manner in which we keep putting garbage in our gutters will not help us in any way at all. It is sad how people take advantage of the rains to collect and put rubbish in our drains.” Archibald Cobbinah, Greater Accra Regional Director of NADMO observed.
Mr. Cobbinah does have a point here, there are some Ghanaians who genuinely don’t see any harm in dumping their trash in our gutters. After all, they see the rains coming and all they know is the rains will take the garbage with it. We can excuse them for now and assume they’re not doing the right thing because they don’t know any better.
But whose job is it to educate them on the right thing to do? Whose job is it to provide an alternative place for them to dump their trash? Whose responsibility is it to find those who contribute to the floods. Until we hold that person accountable, we cannot conveniently blame the people who have no other alternative but throw their garbage into our gutters.
Let’s also look at poor urban planning.
In the early days of independence, the percentage of the urban population was about 23%, this increased to 43% by the early 2000s. With the increase in population, you would think we would be strict in ensuring people don’t just build anywhere they please without taking into account how their actions will affect our drainage infrastructure, but no, people could literally build anywhere they wanted and they did. A large portion of the people who migrated to Accra for greener pastures found themselves in an informal settlement and built sheds close to where they worked, eventually, these sheds built on waterways became home and they became permanent residents of the temporary homes.
The people in these areas are generally poor so relocating them without any support will be impossible, again, what agency’s responsibility is it to begin engaging people in these communities on the need to relocate elsewhere, how do they do it without facing any resistance from the inhabitants, how do they stay sensitive to the fact that though they may be there illegally, they have nowhere else to go and will need assistance with housing?
Let us now take a look at Erosion and Sedimentation.
I asked Engineer Mahama Abdullai what percentage of floods was due to erosion and sedimentation. He makes some assumptions in relation to the Odaw River’s delay in releasing water into the sea. Because the Odaw is about 65% silt, its ability to receive the surface runoff and accommodate it for hours before releasing to the sea has been greatly reduced. The rise at sea level at the point of discharge of the runoff from the Odaw causes the delay in emptying the Odaw. When it comes to the Odaw, 30% of the sedimentation could be said to contributing to the floods.
Fortunately, this problem is not lost on the government. Less than two months ago, the sanitation minister, Cecilia Dapaah, disclosed to the media that the government had allocated 197 million GHS to combat desilting of gutters and other sanitation related issues.
But according to engineer Mahama, the act is too little too late: “We should have started desilting last November or December if authorities were aware that desilting takes at least 6 months to finish. The rainy season starts somewhere in May so starting in April is late if you want to solve the problem.”
Last Wednesday, we were informed by the Head of forecasting at the Ghana Meteorological Agency, Joseph Portuphy, that the World Bank will be allocating $ 200 million to the first phase of the Greater Accra Resilient Project.
The project is meant to “re-engineer all the drainage systems in Accra” and help us warn the general public of floods ahead of time. We also learned from the Communications Director of the National Disaster Management Organization (NADMO), George Ayisi that the Minister for Works and Housing said we need about GHC 7 billion to tackle the floods.
When you don’t have money, you assume money is the solution to all of your problems when in reality, it could just be the willpower to do the right thing. You can’t throw money at a problem you are not willing to solve.
Gideon Commey, an Environmental activist asked some crucial questions when he heard the above: “What happened to the $595 million US-based Export-Import (Exim) Bank loan for the Accra Sanitary Sewer and Stormwater Drainage Alleviation Project, that was launched in 2012 with the promise to permanently fix the problem? What legacy did the Korle Lagoon Ecological Restoration Project (KLERP) funded by the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development ($US84.40m) leave as a contribution to the solution more than 20 years on?”
It is no news that when it comes to problems in Africa, our leaders are the last people we should turn to for solutions. Unfortunately, we elected them to power and must hold them accountable.
So long as we continue to live in this country, so long as our lives are affected by the actions of our fellow citizens who continue to throw caution to the wind and throw rubbish and solid waste wherever they please, so long as our collective well-being is made vulnerable by the inactions of the people we vote into power to serve our interest, we must act. We cannot look to the possibility of an Accra without floods with pessimism.
We must face it, we must keep talking about it, we must keep remembering that these floods are not new, they were here before we were born and they will continue to claim the lives of innocent people if we do not begin to work towards sustainable preventive measures.
Finding long-lasting solutions to the floods will however not only take the willpower of our leaders but the commitment of every single one of us. It’s about time we stopped passively participating in our own development.
These floods affect every single one of us, sitting idly by for our leaders to get it together will not solve the problem.
We must continue holding them accountable to the promises they make, we must hold ourselves and our neighbors to higher standards, we must make ending floods a goal our generation achieves, our survival and the lives of the future generation depend on the actions we take today.
Posterity will not forgive us if we continue normalizing this abnormality of Ghanaians dying every time it rains.
The writer, Dziffa Akua Ametam, is co-host of Citi TV’s Breakfast Daily program which airs from 7:30am to 10am every week day.