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Building on sand: Recent Lagos flood tragedy raises fears for the future

Hours of heavy rainfall, which led to heavy flooding, might portend a major deluge in Africa’s sprawling commercial nerve centre, Lagos, given its lake-side position and proximity to the Atlantic Ocean, writes Valentine Iwenwanne.

On Saturday, 8 July 2017, residents of Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital, were caught unawares by the ravages of flooding. This has become a costly annual experience. The heavy downpour led to widespread and dramatic flooding, which inflicted its usual pains on Lagos residents, as they swam through floods for several hours to get to their destinations.

In the early hours of Saturday morning, as a flood surge gushed into Amechi Isiekwena’s duplex, more than a foot of filthy water bubbled through the poorly constructed drainage system in front of his house, destroying electronics, kitchen appliances and furniture that could not be moved upstairs.

For 11 hours, Amechi and his family were trapped in their five-bedroom apartment, as heavy flooding covered the booming Lekki surburb.

“My family and I were trapped in the house for 11 hours. Those hours were gruelling for me and my family,” he told This Is Africa. “The volume of water was so much that I had to get a water pump and some buckets to pump out the water.”

The 36-year-old father of two was forced to evacuate his family from their flooded apartment at around 11:30 pm, due to fear of dangerous aquatic animals. “I had to move my family to a hotel in the middle of the night, because I was scared that the water could bring in alligators and other dangerous animals that live in the island’s water,” Mr Isiekwena said, a melancholy look on his face.

Mr Isiekwena’s experience of the Lekki flooding is a good example of the reality that residents of Lekki, Ajah and other flood-prone areas face. A number of houses and roads from the Toll Gate before Lekki Phase 1 to the Lekki Free Trade Zone and Victoria Island were submerged by the flooding, causing residents to be stranded because vehicles could not be used. The floods, which have been mainly on Lagos Island, the major business district, flooded roads and kept residents stuck indoors while they resorted to sharing videos and photos of flood scenes on social media.

Read: Otodo Gbame Demolition: How Victims of Lagos’s Forced Demolitions Survive – One Day at a Time

This is no joke for a city like Lagos. Nigeria’s commercial capital and Africa’s megacity is vulnerable to the power of floods, a fact that seems to be viewed by the authorities with a strange kind of apathy.

Lagos is one of the largest coastal megacities and the most populous city in Africa. It is one of the fastest-growing cities in the world, attracting from all parts of Nigeria and Africa a large number of young people and families, both the middle class and the poor, seeking a better life. Even though Lagos is not the federal capital, it is the heart of Nigeria – and Africa – where major financial activities are carried out. It is home to the main port of west Africa and the last resort of the unemployed. It is equally attractive to high-value investors.

Factors responsible for flood disaster

A major cause of the flood disaster is the human factor. It is common practice in Nigeria for people to indiscriminately dump refuse in prohibited areas. Also, inadequate and poor drainage systems and maintenance, and reckless and uncontrolled dredging, which erodes the coastline, are a few of the many factors that contribute to the increase in flooding.

“When there is a high tide, the lagoon water will not recede as fast as it used to,” said Babatunde Ajare, the Lagos Commissioner for the Environment. “That’s one of the main reasons that we have flooding all over the place. Then there are our own man-made problems such as people blocking the drainage channels. People are even building on drainage channels. That has also been causing all these problems.”

In its weather forecast for the year 2017, the Nigeria Meteorological Agency [NIMET] predicted that floods were likely to occur in Sokoto, Zamfara, Niger, Kwara, Oyo, Ogun and Adamawa states. However, some Twitter users have blamed the recent flooding on the development of the Eko Atlantic City.

“This is false. Reclamation happens all over the world. Flooding is mostly due to poor drainage. Drains aren’t connected to larger channels,” /Twitter.

The Eko Atlantic is a coastal city that is rising up from the Atlantic Ocean adjacent to Victoria Island in Lagos. It is protected by a sea wall known as the Great Wall of Lagos, which currently measures in excess of 2 kilometers.

Much more needed

Lagos State governor, Mr Akinwunmi Ambode, through the state’s Commissioner for the Environment, said that most of the flooding would recede after a period of time, attributing the cause to the high tide of the lagoon slowing down the flow of rainfall water from drainage channels.

“We are on top of the situation. The government is concerned by the recent occurrence of flooding in some parts of Victoria Island, Lekki, Oniru and its environs. Our emergency lines 112 and 767 are open 24/7 for residents to report any emergency situation.”

Ambode said, “We have witnessed our prime estates being flooded with water; we have seen our roads being taken over by floods, and we have painfully watched many homesteads literally become pools.”

Read: Africa is feeling the heat: Turning the challenges of climate change into opportunities

To help alleviate the victims’ losses, Nigeria’s acting president, Prof Yemi Osinbajo, has ordered the immediate release of N1,6 billion from the Federal Government Ecological Fund Account, for disbursement to flood victims in 16 affected states. These include Ekiti, Osun, Akwa Ibom, Kebbi, Niger, Kwara, Ebonyi, Enugu, Abia, Oyo, Lagos, Plateau, Sokoto, Edo and Bayelsa.

Preparing for flood disaster

Flood is no doubt a destructive force of nature, which result from storm surges, substantial rainfall, or when structures like dams break. This rush of water can destroy buildings and sweep away cars, ultimately devastating entire communities. It usually takes many hours or even a few days to generate. This gives communities time to evacuate. However, flash floods can hit an area within minutes or after just a few hours of heavy rainfall. This makes it harder for people to reach safety.

Preparing for disasters in a megacity like Lagos requires an anticipatory approach because of the presence of the lagoons that surround it.

Government must improve the drainage systems and get rid of structures erected on portions of land that were sand-filled

Floods are the area’s number one natural disaster, resulting in the destruction of property worth billions of naira. The government needs to not only ensure that the state is adequately insured for flood risks but should also be ready for the business continuity and crisis management issues it can cause.

Mitigating the problem of flooding in Africa’s biggest city

More than half of the population of Lagos lives and works in the coastal region, which is of high economic, social and environmental value to the nation. Nearly all the choicest residential properties in Africa’s megacity are located within 110 meters of soft, erodible shoreline.

Nearly all the choicest residential properties in Africa’s megacity are located within 110 meters of soft, erodible shoreline.

However, the city’s drainage system is mostly poorly planned and, in some places, non-existent, while most of the Lekki/Ajah stretch is swamp land that had been dredged and filled with sand before buildings and skyscrapers were erected.

“When there is intensive rainfall and there is no proper drainage, the water will overflow. So, there is a need for the Lagos government to improve the drainage systems and get rid of structures erected on portions of land that were sand-filled if it was serious about solving the problem of continued flooding,” Mr James Oyesola, the national president of United Nation’s Environment Ecosystem Based Adaptation for Food Security Assembly (EBAFOSA) in Nigeria, told This Is Africa.

“Lagos is highly vulnerable to climate change, therefore most dams will overflow this year. The only solution is increased channelisation, the construction of more drainage systems and the discontinuation of sand filling,” he added.

A flood, however, is the unusual presence of water on land to a depth which affects normal activities. Flooding is a natural occurrence. Yet, its impact can be controlled by man. Interestingly, a flood in itself is not disastrous. It only becomes one when people are not prepared for it and early warnings and scientific prognosis are flagrantly ignored and mitigation measures are not put in place to attenuate its impact on the economy.

Preparing for disasters in a mega city like Lagos requires an anticipatory approach.

The apathy and apparent insouciance with which flood-related warnings have been treated over the years is therefore difficult to understand, especially when one considers how widespread the problem is. The states of Adamawa, Taraba, Plateau, Benue, Bayelsa, Kogi, Niger, Lagos, Ogun and, Rivers are all affected. The water level in these states can rise several meters high, swallowing whole buildings and entire communities.

Just as Lagosians are recuperating from the shock and trauma of the July 2017 disaster, the Minister of Water Resources, Suleiman Adam, have raised the alarm of an impending major deluge, saying that the delay in rains, monsoon wind and rising sea levels are all factors that will contribute to increased flooding.

The overlooked importance of wetlands

The reclamation of wetlands, which are being filled with sand so that buildings can be erected there, are most probably one of the biggest issues. Wetlands act as a natural buffer to flooding. “For the coastal areas, including Lagos, Port Harcourt and Calabar, possible coastal flooding were mentioned in the NIHSA’s flood outlook. However, the case of Lagos State is unique, because it is very low-lying and there is the ongoing reclamation of wetlands, which ordinarily act as buffers to floods,” he said.

It seems that the causes of the increased flooding may well include some that are man-made. Developers and government appear not to be heeding the biblical advice not to build on sand.

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