It took Souleymane Diallo 55 years to build the 10 mud-walled rooms that made up his family’s house, and almost all his money to fill the small dome-shaped granary that was meant to feed them for the next few months. But it took just three hours of torrential rain to destroy nearly every shred of their existence.
Diallo, the victim of flash floods on 26 July that devastated this remote town in western Mali, stands surveying the piles of mud that he says were once his house. Red shoes strewn about and pieces of broken furniture sticking out of the ground are the only real evidence that this was once inhabited by Diallo and his 29 family members.
“We lost everything that night,” he said with a shrug. “What the floods didn’t take, the looters did.”
Diallo’s family moved first to the town’s school, then -- when officials told them to vacate the building for the start of the school year -- to a squat in some abandoned buildings once used to house teachers. “If I spend the money on rebuilding the house, what are we going to live on?” Diallo said. “I don’t even have the money to pay for rent for somewhere for us to live.”
In vast areas of West Africa, a region that includes some of the world's poorest countries, thousands of people this year find themselves in Diallo’s situation.
The floods that have left much of the region under water have had a dramatic impact on people of all backgrounds, forcing rich and poor alike to huddle together in school rooms or sometimes even in trees.
But once the flood water recedes, it is usually the poorest people like Diallo -- who have built their houses with the cheapest materials and in the least-favoured spots -- who have the least to go back to, but also struggle the most with rebuilding.
It is no coincidence that as poverty has increased across West Africa during the last 30 years, the region has also recorded a 94 percent increase in the number of natural disasters including floods, epidemics and droughts over the same period, according to figures from the Economic Community of West African States or ECOWAS.
“The poorest are always the hardest hit because they are already on the edge,” said N’Tyo Traore, technical director in the Bla local government. “Even a small disaster has a big impact on them.”
In Bla, exactly two months after the flash floods, in some areas the only houses still standing are those of local government officials, built from concrete. The mud-brick houses which the poorest build for a tenth of the cost of concrete-walled houses literally melted away in the floods.
Mali’s government has been widely praised by international aid agencies for having put in place a national emergency structure that was able to respond to the initial wave of floods across the country in July and August without having to make an appeal for international help.
|...As a community, we can help with the initial emergency, but what about afterwards?...|
But while 12,600 people were made homeless, almost no reconstruction work has started yet in Bla. For that, Mali’s government has had to make an appeal for help to the UN, which in turn has turned to its own Central Emergency Relief Fund instead of to traditional donors which have typically been reluctant to deal with the fallout of disasters.
“As a community, we can help with the initial emergency, but what about afterwards?” explained a local government official, who could not be named because he did not have permission to speak on the record. “This is a poor country already. We’re all struggling.”
The Malian Red Cross estimates that 21,000 people were affected by floods in Mali this year, stretching from small communities around Gao in the desert areas in the north, to the far west region of Kayes, one of the poorest and most isolated regions of Mali.
While the overall number is relatively small compared to the 1.5 million people aid agencies say were affected by floods across the continent, Mali lies on a West African fault-line of natural disasters that makes it more likely than not that almost every community will be hit by one if not more natural disasters or epidemics every year.
“People in some parts of Mali experience a permanent crisis,” said Idrissa Traore, head of operations for the Mali Red Cross. “So when there is a situation like this, the effects are often even more amplified for them.”
Apart from the stark physical destruction, locals say floods strike to the heart of the community, breaking up close-knit families and traditional community structures that can serve to insulate people from shocks to their hand-to-mouth existence. For the poorest people in countries like Mali, just one event like a flood can be enough to send them down to a level of poverty from which it can often be impossible to recover.
It also makes them vulnerable to preventable diseases like diarrhoea, malaria and malnutrition, which aid agencies spend millions of dollars every year trying to treat and prevent.
“Over the long term we can’t yet appreciate what will happen but we know already it’s not going to be easy for people to get back to the level they were before the floods,” said Mamadou Sidibe, a medical doctor at the Bla health centre.
“It will probably increase the number of cases of malaria. And there can be far more cases of malnutrition because of the changes it forces in the way people eat – many families have lost all their food.”
For Diallo and his family, sickness is just an inevitable outcome of their lost livelihoods. “We don’t drink clean water anymore because all the wells were spoiled when the latrines overflowed into them. We can’t buy bottled water, so we have to drink from the wells. We know it is dangerous and makes us sick, but we have no choice.”
Click here for the story of one family struggling to rebuild after the floods