WEST AFRICA: Widespread flooding tests governments, aid community

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

When the residents of 680 households in the Burkinabé province of Kouritenga found their homes flooded in early June, they could not have known the significance the incident would hold for the rest of the region and in fact the continent.

It was one of the first instances of flooding that would within three months affect 1.5 million people in Africa -- more than 680,000 of them in West Africa. And some governments and aid groups in the region say the relief effort has been slow off the mark.

While the Burkina flooding might have been unexpected for residents, it likely was not surprising for meteorologists who had forecast heavier rains – in more unusual places – in the Sahel this season.

The rains began slowly. In a village in south western Niger 36 straw homes crumbled in flood waters in mid-June. Floods being a recurring phenomenon in West Africa, many were not alarmed when the steady rains began in July.

“This time of year, we always see floods,” said Youcef Ait-Chellouche, disaster management coordinator for the West and Central Africa zone of the International Federation of the Red Cross. “The first reaction was, ‘as usual’. We thought it was normal.”

But it soon became clear that this year’s rainy season was not normal. In early July, Nigeria saw floods that would eventually spread across the country. By the end of the month, 9,000 people were affected in Mali. By the second week of August, the Mauritanian market town of Tintane was underwater with two-thirds of its inhabitants homeless. Flooding in Burkina Faso worsened. Chad, Cote d’Ivoire and Senegal joined the list.

Heavy rains had destroyed homes, knocked over trees and toppled bridges. People were washed away or crushed to death by crumbling walls.

“Not only was there more rain than usual, it fell in areas that are not usually flooded,” Ait-Chellouche said. “So people hadn’t developed coping mechanisms.”

By the time UN and aid agencies met in Dakar for an emergency meeting on flooding in the region, more than 90,000 people had been affected in eight countries.

Racing against time

“You’re always fighting against a ticking clock,” said Gareth Owen, emergencies director for Save the Children UK. “The reality is that people tend to have to fend for themselves.”

“By the time the first consignment of relief arrives, people have already gone to [stay with] their relatives,” added Abdul-Rahman Sumaila, West Africa’s emergencies advisor for the development organisation ActionAid. “The quantity is so small anyway, that it is not enough.”

By the beginning of September, after Togo’s northern region of Savanes was submerged and the Ghanaian government said floods there had affected more than 260,000 people, the magnitude of the situation had settled in.

Still, uncertainty over the numbers in Ghana slowed assistance. The hardest-hit country in West Africa, Ghana began seeing devastating rains on 24 August. Two and a half weeks later, the government declared three affected regions in the north disaster zones. On 21 September the UN wrapped up a joint mission to assess the needs in order to begin distributing aid.

“There should have been a response by the international community by now,” ActionAid’s Sumaila, who was part of the assessment team, told IRIN on 19 September. “If we want to wait to be satisfied with the figures before we respond, the people will have perished.”

On 6 September, the Togolese Minister of Cooperation appealed to the diplomatic core and the UN system to help the 121,000 people the government found to be affected by floods in the northern region of Savanes. “We’re waiting for the international community to react,” Roger Danioué, cabinet director for the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Promotion of Women – the ministry overseeing flood relief efforts – told IRIN on 19 September. “We haven’t yet gotten a response.”

Part of the response that is beginning to take shape comes from the West Africa office of the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO), one of the world’s largest humanitarian donors. On 17 September, ECHO approved 2 million euros (US$2.8 million) for short-term relief in Burkina Faso, Togo and Ghana. It takes a few weeks to free the money but it will apply retroactively to the agencies who receive it.

Stéphane Quinton, head of ECHO’s West Africa office, said the two main challenges to quickly getting assistance to flood victims in the region were getting donors on board and finding the agencies through which to channel the funds.

“[In West Africa], we have a series of small or medium-sized floods that don’t get the full reaction from the international community…that’s the problem,” Quinton told IRIN. “It’s not a big disaster, but it’s serious because it can affect populations.”

He added, “Even if we can mobilise funds, it is difficult to find implementing partners on site… We don’t have on-site NGOs specializing in disaster; most of them are working in development.”

The observation is echoed by the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC) but rejejcted by many NGOs who say they had the ability to intervene. In fact, various NGOs have made modest contributions in specific localities, but many said they did not yet see a strong need for large-scale intervention.

The countries affected seem to disagree. In Togo’s Savanes region, there are still people without food, according to Danioué.

Needs remain

“Whatever food was distributed [by the government], people have surely already consumed it, because it wasn’t much and it’s been a week and a half [since distribution],” he told IRIN on 19 September.

The country needs materials to rebuild its schools, all-terrain vehicles to access some sites, and anti-venom serum to protect against snakes that emerge in flood waters. The population of the Kpendjal prefecture – about 125,000 people – is completely inaccessible by road.

In northern Ghana, according to a 19 September UN report, there is an urgent need to relocate families hosted in schools and to provide food or methods of food production, as market prices have doubled for most commodities and affected people are “resorting to one meal per day as a coping mechanism”. Health workers have reported an increase in malaria and diarrhoea cases, and lack of safe drinking water is a “major concern”, the report said.

Even in some of the earlier-hit countries, where situations are mostly under control, many needs remain.

The Malian government has been asking for tents to house its 4,500 homeless since mid-August and still “there is not one single tent,” Col. Mamadou Traoré, head of the civil protection service, told IRIN on 19 September.

Burkina Faso still needs materials for people to rebuild their homes, and will need more assistance down the road when food for the displaced runs out, according to the national council for emergency aid.

In Mauritania, government officials say for now short-term needs have been met, but they worry that rehabilitation of homes, health centres, markets and livelihoods will be a problem. Officials in many affected countries have expressed similar concerns over long-term needs.

“The big question is: Will there be investment in rebuilding lost livelihoods?” asked Greg Ramm, regional director of the West and Central Africa office for Save the Children UK. “As the fields dry in Togo or Burkina Faso, will the humanitarian and development actors and donors have the staying power and interest to stay with those communities for the next years?

“I don’t see a lot of evidence of that,” he said.

The week of 17 September, funding appeals and announcements began to emerge. The IFRC appealed for 2.5 million Swiss francs (US$2.1 million) to help flood-affected people in Togo and Ghana for the next six months and the Netherlands donated 2 million euros (US$2.8 million) for flood relief efforts in West African states. On 21 September the Canadian government said it would give CDN$3 million (US$2.9 million) to assist flood-affected communities across Africa.

Source: IRIN
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