TOGO: Thousands displaced from flooding, experts brace for more

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Weeks of rains in Togo have forced thousands of people from their homes into temporary government-run centres set up throughout the capital, Lome.

Ramon Aloumoun, 48 years old, took some clothing and a few documents when he left his home 4 August with his wife and three children. “Everything else just washed away. Water reached the level of my bed, then tables. I am a welder and my tools in the garage are now gone. Everything.”

Togo’s head of Red Cross Disaster Relief, Victor Sodogas, estimates more than 6,000 people, including approximately 1,000 children, have sought shelter in six government centres that do not have designated sleeping quarters. “They just sleep in the processing areas. There are no mosquito nets yet in the centres, which may become more of an issue as the rainy season continues to push people into these shelters.”

Climatologist Michel Boko from the University of Cotonou in Benin says weather trends point to more flooding during this year’s rainy season, which typically is from May to September.

“Even though the rainy season has shortened in recent years, the annual rainfall amount has not changed, which means we are seeing more intense rains. Coupled with land degradation throughout sub-Saharan Africa, this makes for ideal flooding conditions.”

West Africa’s arable land has slowly been shrinking, which some scientists link to the earth’s increasingly warmer temperatures, or global warming. Boko explains, “Much of the region practices subsistence farming. Farmers abuse the land until it is easily eroded and cannot withstand rain.”

The regional disaster preparedness manager for West Africa, Jerry Niati, with the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC), says that while people cannot fight nature, they can prepare for it. But few do, he says.

“Most people are quick to respond, but slow to prepare. Mindset change is what needs to be done. We need to address underlying reasons. Why do we get flooding? What have we done to contribute to it? You get the community to propose solutions. People have to think of ways to reduce risks so they are not victims.”

Niati says preventing the worst impacts of flooding would cost less than responding to massive destruction.

Last year, floods throughout Africa displaced more than one million people, wiping out swaths of cropland, and sparking a fatal outbreak of cholera in sub-Saharan Africa. Niati says some of this can be avoided. “We don’t have to go high tech early warning system. We are already partnering with meteorological institutions that can provide us with data.”

But Niati says even advance warning does not change behaviours, “When we [IFRC] try to do emergency drills [with people in flood prone areas], they think it’s a hoax. And then the storms come, catching them unprepared.”

Disaster relief teams throughout West Africa advise populations, especially those in high-risk waterfront areas, to clean riverbanks, plant trees and mangroves to prevent landslides, build homes on higher ground, and to build dykes.

Niati admits these suggestions are not always practical, “People cut down trees for charcoal. Relocating people from a high-risk waterfront area can be difficult. So we have to be creative. But we need to engage the community to raise its awareness about the alternatives if they do not prepare.”

Togo’s government announced last week that rains starting 15 July have led to the collapse of nine bridges and stranded thousands.

IFRC’s Niati says recovery is a long road. “It is not just an issue of housing or bridges. This is not just flooding because flooding [brings out] other issues. For example, people will have more problems in coming seasons because their crops have been washed away. We need to learn from our experiences. These are recurring situations, and it seems no one is learning.”