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Nigeria’s floodwaters reveal a state unable to protect its people

27 out of Nigeria’s 36 states have been hit and meteorological agencies warn that states like Anambra, Delta, Cross River, Rivers, and Bayelsa may experience floods till the end of November.

According to the humanitarian affairs minister, Sadiya Farouk, by 16 October, 2,504,095 persons had been affected, with 603 dead, 2407 injured and 1,302,589 displaced.

In mid-October, Farouk also announced that 82,053 housing structures had been damaged or wrecked. 10 days later, the figure must be much higher.

The catalogue of flood-related woes is extensive. Waterborne and other diseases are rife. Entire communities have been paralysed or eradicated.

Coffins uprooted

Well over 100,000 hectares of farmland have been inundated. Crops have been destroyed. Fishermen have been unable to fish. Food shortages have ensued.

The prices of basic commodities have spiked. Roads that were never solidly-constructed in the first place have collapsed, rendering many areas inaccessible or impossible to leave. Thousands are stranded on ‘islands’.

There is hardly any work done on improving the institutions that work on disaster management.

In the creeks of the Niger Delta region where graves have to be shallow because of the nature of the terrain, coffins containing the long-buried have been uprooted from their resting places and swept away to new locations.

In some instances, the coffins have been forced open by aggressive water pressure and the corpses or skeletons within have been gruesomely ejected.

Nigeria has been tottering under the weight of numerous socio-economic, infrastructural, health-related, security and agricultural problems for years; and this flooding crisis has further exacerbated an already bad situation.

Several government bodies, NGOs, foreign charities, indigenous philanthropists and vote-seeking politicians are making significant donations.

However, the assistance that the starving, penniless, homeless and sick are receiving is insufficient, random, poorly coordinated and tantamount to putting small sticking plasters on gaping wounds. There is also talk of corruption, with some officials being accused of hijacking cash and aid packages meant for victims.

Failure to prepare for disasters

Dr Francis Atamuno, a civil servant who is managing one of the palliative delivery programmes in Bayelsa State, says: “Progress is definitely being made, but some of the areas that need help most can only be reached by boat; and there is no fuel for boats because the East-West road that links Bayelsa to the outside world is in pieces and fuel tankers cannot currently get here.”

Climate change is the main culprit, but not the only cause of the flooding. Last month, the authorities in neighbouring Cameroon released excess water from the Lagdo Dam. Despite having agreed, in the 1980s, to control overflows by building a corresponding dam in Adamawa State, Nigeria still hasn’t done so.

Critics bemoan successive governments’ failure to prepare for disasters and as Nation newspaper columnist Prince Charles Dickson says:

“Generally speaking, we have no national frameworks, policies, plans, guidelines, [or] risk assessments, [neither do we have] well-stocked warehouses for emergencies [or] revised building codes specially formulated for disaster preparedness and resilience… In a practical sense, the country has never taken disaster management as a serious matter. There is hardly any work done on improving the institutions that work on disaster management.”

President Muhammadu Buhari recently asked relevant ministries and state governments to develop a comprehensive flood prevention action plan.

Buhari has been in office for over seven years, which means this action plan is long overdue. Since his tenure will grind to a halt very soon – on 29 May 2023 – it is fair to accuse him of dodging responsibility for implementation and leaving the headache to his successor to inherit.

‘Social contract’

Kester Dortimi, a Niger Delta activist and lawyer, has started a change.org petition in a bid to make flooding a major election campaign issue.

“If federal, state and local governments were doing their jobs, they should, at least a decade ago, have established an integrated Flood Management Plan comprising structural and functional measures to prevent, control or adapt to flood events and to mitigate the impact of floods on the environment and population centres that are at risk… Distributing relief materials is not enough and is often done purely to corruptly line the distributors’ pockets,” he says.

He goes on to urge the electorate to “demand a social contract” and ask presidential, gubernatorial and legislative candidates of all political parties to tell the public how they intend to manage the flooding problem if they win.

What started as a natural disaster became a man-made disaster – a failure of government to look out for its own citizens

Even though floods are no respecters of bank balances or status – ex-President Goodluck Jonathan’s ancestral village is one of the worst-hit areas and his residence was not spared when the deluge came.

There is, however, no doubt that when calamity strikes, the have-nots usually suffer much, much more than those who are cushioned by affluence.

It’s worth recalling the comments that former President Barack Obama made on the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina (23-31 August 2005), the most devastating natural disaster in American history (1800 deaths, damage to buildings, businesses, etc, totalling $125bn).

“What started as a natural disaster became a man-made disaster – a failure of government to look out for its own citizens,” he told a crowd in New Orleans in 2015, in the Lower Ninth Ward of the city – which is mostly populated by low-income blacks who were treated appallingly during and after the historic storm.

As the weakest members of Nigerian society try to cling onto their sanity and try to stay alive in murky treacherous waters, one can only hope that the traumas they are going through will not be forgotten by the next president.

‘Never again’ would be a great campaign slogan for any flag bearer who cares enough to dynamically change the flood management narrative.

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