WEST AFRICA: Flood relief efforts continue

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Disaster relief teams have fanned out across West Africa to assess how badly the region was hit during the past month of heavy rains. Tens of thousands were affected in Togo, Burkina Faso, Niger, Liberia and Mauritania according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA).

In Niger, more than 40,000 thousand people were affected by heavy rains which started on 14 July. In the country’s second most populated city, Zinder, hundreds are camping in the local elementary school.

Nobert Allale, a disaster relief manager at the Dakar-based International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), says schools are a refuge for those without family or money to rent a new home.

Allale visited Zinder on 22 July, one week after the rains first hit. “The situation is stable now. Families have been given water and food. We are now in the process of distributing mosquito nets, pots and pans. We are past the emergency response phase.”

Allale says there is no plan in place yet for where these families will go once the school year begins October, “We need to look to long-term solutions. We know the rains will come. We cannot blame nature alone for these annual catastrophes. It is nature plus man’s inability to adapt. People live in mud homes in flood-prone areas. If they build on the same site year after year… this is what happens.”

In Togo, heavy rainfall has led to bridge collapse, and cut off most of the cell phone network. A team from the International Monetary Fund is expected 27 August to review flood damage as a part of its more than US$60 million commitment.

Major donors cut off most aid to Togo during recent years of bloody tumult, which included allegedly rigged elections and army crackdowns that sent thousands fleeing to neighbouring countries.

Donors are slowly coming back following Togo’s 2007 legislative election, which monitors said was mostly free and fair.

According to the World Bank, Togo has accrued more than US$100 million in debt since 2002 from past World Bank loans.

The European Union recently approved a five-year more than US$180 million loan, which will partly go toward rebuilding the country’s infrastructure.

Elsewhere in West Africa, Liberian government officials have said recent storms are the worst in recent history. They say heavy rainfall and construction on wetlands have pushed out about 1,000 from their homes.

Disaster relief coordinator Allale says IFRC is training a rapid response team of 10 members from throughout West Africa to be based in Niamey, from where they will be able to quickly reach an emergency.

“We learned from our mistakes last year when not all the disaster response staff had visas to get into emergency areas. This year, IFRC has paid for the visas in advance so the team will not be held up with paperwork. We are learning.”