An active monsoon and above normal temperatures triggered heavy downpours and flash floods during this year’s rainy season across West Africa and the Sahel, killing hundreds of people, displacing hundreds of thousands more and devastating farms in some of the countries already hit by a severe drought and acute food shortages.
Rainfall more than 150 percent above normal from late July to late August lashed southeastern Mauritania and neighbouring regions in Mali, Senegal, northern Burkina Faso, Mali’s Niger river basin, Lake Chad basin in Niger, Nigeria and Cameroon, the World Meteorological Organization said.
“There aren’t reliable data yet [on how harvests will be affected], but the floods will affect agricultural production,” said Al Hassan Cissé, Oxfam International’s regional food security advocacy coordinator for West Africa.
In Niger, rice growing fields along the River Niger are flooded, and more than 7,000 farms have flooded, Cissé said. “The predicted good harvest in Niger will have to be scaled down because the floods will have a great impact on the riverine regions.” USAID’s Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS NET) had in August predicted good harvests in Niger following “extremely good rainfall”.
However, with the floods, FEWS NET said rice production in Tillabéry region northwest of the capital Niamey would be affected. Refugees and food-insecure host populations in Tillabéry will continue to require food assistance in March 2013.
The flooding has displaced around 525,000 people and killed 81 others in Niger. Aid organizations have rallied to help those in need with food, shelter, water and emergency health care. In Tillabéry, 79,740 people have been affected, the highest number of all the eight areas hit by the floods.
Dams on the River Niger have reached their highest water levels in 29 years, prompting the Nigerian National Emergency Management Agency to issue an immediate evacuation notice for people living along the river plains. At least 137 people have been killed by floods and more than 35,000 others displaced in Nigeria since July. In 2011, 102 people were killed by floods in one week in southwestern Nigeria.
Around 25,000 people have been rendered homeless in Cameroon’s North and Far North regions due to the torrential rains that breached a dyke and flooded some six villages in the Far North region. Those affected have sought refuge with host families and in schools, which are expected to reopen soon, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said.
Limited impact on harvests
FEWS NET Programme Manager Gary Eilerts, however, said flooding is not usually linked to widespread food insecurity in the Sahel, where more than 18 million people have faced starvation this lean season due to a harsh drought and high food costs.
“FEWS NET has found that the flooding caused by heavy rains is generally not associated with widespread increased food insecurity - except for the small number of people who are directly in the path of floodwaters,” Eilerts told IRIN.
“For the vast majority of other people, the heavy rains are most often a blessing for their crops.”
While the floods may have a limited impact on harvests, which are expected in October across West Africa, hundreds of thousands of people have been rendered homeless, their property destroyed, and will be needing help to resume their normal lives.
“Priority should be given to the regions hit by the food crisis to support those affected so as to avoid the crisis spilling into 2013,” said Oxfam’s Cissé. All the countries hit by heavy rains and flooding - Chad, Niger, Nigeria, Mauritania and Senegal - are among the Sahel and West African states where thousands faced severe food shortages.
In Côte d'Ivoire, the authorities this year ordered some 6,000 families living in flood prone areas in the commercial capital Abidjan to evacuate and gave each family US$300 to find alternative safe housing.
“Previous rainy seasons have caused deaths in certain districts because of landslides, rock falls and flooding. We don’t want that to happen again this year. That is why we have taken measures to ensure no human life is lost,” Fiacre Kili, the director of the National Office for Civilian Protection, told IRIN.
West African government representatives and aid groups are seeking ways to improve disaster prevention and move beyond emergency response; they met for talks on 12 September in Dakar, a city that suffered massive flooding in August.