After the floods that have this season affected over 130,000 people in nine West African countries, according to the latest UN figures, humanitarian actors are urging international donors to invest in risk reduction and the mitigation of floods.
“We know there have been floods in West Africa. This is not new,” said Herve Ludovic de Lys, head of the regional UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) for West Africa. “[But] there is no interest in prevention among the donors.”
In what the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC) called “unprecedented” flooding in West Africa, tens of thousands of people in Mali, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Niger, Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, The Gambia, Liberia and Nigeria have lost their homes or their livelihoods, and dozens have died. Rains have also destroyed critical water and transportation infrastructure.
“We will see more and more of this problem every year because vulnerabilities are increasing and threats are becoming more frequent,” said Stéphane Quinton, head of the West Africa office of the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO). “We have to move from response mode to reduction of risks. There are no other solutions.”
No early warnings
Despite the fact that floods have hit this region for at least the last five years, most West African countries have no functioning early warning systems and there is no regional system in place to warn of floods, as there is for drought and food shortages (the Permanent Interstate Committee for Drought Control in the Sahel). In May, the African Centre of Meteorological Applications for Development predicted heavier than normal rainfall in parts of the Sahel from July to September, but did not specify exactly when and how much.
Even where early warning systems do exist, the information often remains centralised and information is not well communicated to people, Quinton said. “Early warning systems aren’t just a red light, but the making of a decision,” which is sometimes lacking, he added.
OCHA works with countries in the region to develop contingency plans, but they very rarely touch on floods or natural disasters because historically, conflicts, epidemics and the movement of people have been bigger problems, according to Ibrahim Barry, head of OCHA’s regional coordination and response unit.
“Now floods are becoming more frequent with more serious consequences,” Barry told IRIN. “We recognise that the reduction of risks linked to natural disasters is a major challenge for West Africa. Clearly, we have to beef up our efforts.”
Aid workers say risk reduction for floods should start with an assessment of people living in areas threatened by floods. An early warning system would allow people in at-risk areas to be evacuated earlier when heavy rains are expected. Preparations in advance would also allow governments and aid workers to plan for alternative shelter and extra food stocks, and more importantly, to coordinate who is in charge of what.
“These are very practical things that can make all the difference for the populations affected,” Quinton told IRIN.
Longer term work would involve the permanent movement of people out of vulnerable areas, the construction of stronger homes and channels through which water can flow easily.
“We wasted a lot of time”
In Mali, one of the hardest hit countries where the government estimates 30,000 people have been affected, no flood contingency plans were in place.
“Aid was a bit slow and was insufficient - in terms of shelter, food, and medicine,” said Moctar Hanne, OCHA’s national humanitarian affairs officer in Mali. “If we had a contingency plan, we could have avoided many things. We wasted a lot of time in arriving with relief.”
The government estimates there are still 14,000 people temporarily staying in schools, which will reopen in the middle of September. “We could have planned where to house people. We could have set up tents in advance,” said Col Mamadou Traoré, head of Mali’s civil protection service.
“Many countries in the region didn’t know they had to make prevention a governmental priority. They didn’t understand its importance,” Traoré added. “Now they do, and they’re in the process of putting strategies in place.”
With the help of the UN Development Programme’s Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery (BCPR), Mali is in the midst of a risk assessment in three of its regions, which will lead to a national strategy for the prevention of catastrophes and relief planning. It also has a bill before its national assembly that would put in place a system for responding to emergencies, including an early warning system and the delineation of tasks.
A question of resources
However, disaster reduction in this area has its roadblocks.
Photo: Marcus Wleh/UNMIL HCS
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“Risk mitigation in floods is a very expensive thing,” said Seth Vordzorgbe, senior regional adviser for Africa at the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction. Averting flood damage means structural changes to drainage systems, the building of dikes and watershed management.
West Africa is home to some of the poorest countries in the world, who must divide limited resources between struggling educational systems, crumbling infrastructure and deadly epidemics. “Preventing and responding to natural disasters is not a priority for these governments,” OCHA’s Ludovic de Lys said.
At the international level, donors are more willing to give money for immediate relief in emergencies than to the less visible preparation and prevention projects, ECHO’s Quinton said.
Small steps are being taken at both the national and regional levels.
In Niger, the world’s poorest country, the authorities said they learned from last year, when floods affected 44,000 people. The government put aside food stocks in case of floods and was better able to respond this year - both in terms of food and coordination, according to the crisis response mechanism, Cellule Crise Alimentaire. Niger has also drafted a crisis prevention strategy that includes recommendations to put in place a meteorological surveillance and alert system, better manage areas likely to be flooded and ensure good water flow.
Regionally, OCHA has drafted its first strategy for reduction of risks linked to natural disasters in West Africa. The document pledges to help governments develop natural disaster contingency plans, and set up a regional UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination team, which will be deployed to countries affected by natural disasters. In its annual appeal for funds for the region, OCHA plans to put an emphasis on risk reduction.
Building government capacity for risk reduction and early warning systems is also part of a new 25 million euro Sahel Plan for five Sahelian countries, to be administered by ECHO.
Work has also begun to empower communities to deal with crisis situations themselves. Since last year, the IFRC has been running five-day workshops for people in vulnerable communities, to strengthen their ability to immediately deal with crises while they await international aid.
“The communities should be in the frontline in terms of mitigation,” said Alasan Senghore, head of the IFRC in West and Central Africa.
The IFRC teaches them how to identify dangers, how to draw out a plan and how to respond. The IFRC has already conducted workshops in Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Mali and hopes to intensify them this year and next.
Despite the progress, aid workers say the number of people affected by floods in West Africa this year - about double that of last year - shows that a larger shift towards risk reduction is needed.
“It’s now time for us to start thinking differently,” Senghore said.