Flood: When Disaster becomes Unnatural by Ahmed Maiyaki

The month of August is over, yet heavy rains still wreak havoc in most parts of Nigeria with rising pains and agonies from death, life threatening injuries and displacements of people, farmlands and valuables worth several billions.

Victims grieve in pains and death; Mallam Abba Abubakar, 78, a resident of Potiskum in Yobe State, northeast Nigeria is one of the several thousands of people that have been displaced by this year’s flood. He is without shelter and food to eat. For him, it was quite a lucky incident since he survived unlike the four undergraduate students of Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University, Bauchi who sadly lost their lives. A pedestrian bridge linking the campus to student hostels collapsed at midnight. The hurtful stories are endless, with so many unreported.

Nigeria’s emergency agencies had issued several alerts warning Nigerians of an imminent flooding in parts of the country. Nigeria Hydrological Agency says that no fewer than 74 Local Government Areas (LGA) in 30 states in Nigeria would experience severe flooding in June, July and August, with September as the peak of imminent increased flooding.

Nigeria’s climate has witnessed significant spatial and temporal changes with extreme weather and climate conditions with ocean surges and floods becoming more regular. These shifts come with a number of socio-economic impacts on agriculture, hydrology, construction, education and health.

Nigeria has faced floods in recent years, with hundreds killed and thousands displaced. Preliminary assessment confirms death of thousands of people mostly women and children and so many others trapped.

According to a preliminary assessment report by Red Cross Society of Nigeria, over 2,321,592 people were affected by floods, leaving an estimated 722,741 people internally displaced and 351,236 people in need humanitarian assistance in 12 states. The report added that as at mid August, about 25 states were affected by floods damaging lives, property, critical infrastructure and livelihoods.

The gloomy situation appears similar to Nigeria’s experience in 2012, which remains the worst in history. The unprecedented flood disaster that year affected more than half of the 36 states, with 21 million people displaced; 597,476 houses destroyed or damaged; over 363 people were killed and an estimated loss of USD 19.6 billion, according to an assessment conducted by NEMA and supported by the World Bank in 2013.

The Nigeria Hydrological Agency had accused state governments of failing to heed to several warnings on floods released to them. Building permits issued by states agencies are reportedly enmeshed with corrupt practices with high disregard for laid down procedure and best practice.

However, beyond blame games, Nigeria seems not to have learnt from these tragedies; While governments at all levels perpetually resort to relief provision rather than proactively acting before it strikes, the people on their part, build on flood plains and block water ways yet shameless blame nature for their recklessness. And this sparks an increasing debate on whether or not disasters like flood are natural or man made.

A renowned group based in the United Kingdom with growing spread across the world #NoNaturalDisasters, argues that the term ‘natural disaster’ is ubiquitous as widely used by the media, government and humanitarian groups. While natural hazards like flood are inevitable, it is misleading to say the devastating impacts are natural. The bane of contention is whether or not humans have control over the effects of hazards when they occur.

It is instructive however to note, while it is impossible to stop natural hazards, the risk can be reduced or mitigated. And to achieve this noble objective, every one must play their roles; Government at all levels, the media and other key actors.

The newly appointed Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management & Social Development, Sadiya Umar Farouq must take a lead. We expect that she brings to bear her enormous experience from the Refugees Commission. The Federal Government through the new ministry must provide policy direction on disaster risk reduction and effective early warning systems with a robust flood response plan.

Additionally, it is also absolutely necessary to launch a people-driven attitudinal change campaign on risk reduction in order to build a culture of preparedness, mitigation, response and community resilience to disaster in Nigeria. People must imbibe positive attitudes towards the environment and end the habit of building illegal structures on flood plains, waterways blockage and ensure prompt compliance to early warnings and respond promptly to red flags ahead of rains.

The state governments on the other hand must strengthen and empower various State Emergency Management Agencies (SEMA) into functional units that coordinates disaster response and coordination at the state levels. The enforcement and control of building structures is equally very important in line with acceptable standards.

In the same vein, the media as the fourth estate of the realm is critical in this onerous task. Beyond reporting casualty figures for attractive headlines, the media must refocus to pre and post incident reporting; before and when an incident happens and a follow up on the aftermath. The rebuilding and rehabilitation process of an incident such as flood must be closely monitored by the media.

Relevant government agencies must also engage with the media beyond issuing press releases or statement on early warnings and distribution of relief materials to victims of disaster. The media as the watchdog of the society has a role to ensure compliance to early warnings, evacuation and enforcement of land use act and building plans in both urban and semi urban settings.

No doubt, with careful planning and mitigative measures, we can alter the vulnerabilities to flood and invariably reduce the risks when it occurs. And to achieve this noble goal, we must all play our parts.

Maiyaki is the author of “Beyond Casualties: A Media Playbook on Disaster Risk Reduction”. He can be reached through ahmedmaiyaki@gmail.com.

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