DISASTER seems to have found a home in Nigeria. From one ugly incident to the other, the country is kept on tenterhooks as both man-made and natural disasters take turns to ravage the people. In the last one month, the talk has been on flood which came heavily and washed a sizeable chunk of the country, with the affected areas still reeling in its aftermath. The people are striving to still survive as the flood water did not only submerge their abodes and chased them away, but exposed them to hunger, disease and death.
As usual, there have been talks and contentions from different quarters as to the cause of the flooding; and again there is the usual tardiness in emergency response. More than 600 persons were initially reported to have died in the incident that washed through Kogi, Benue, Anambra, Bayelsa, Rivers, Jigawa, Adamawa, Borno and some sections of other states. About 26 states are reported to have been affected at the height of it.
The initial assumption was that the cause of the massive flooding was the opening of the sluices of the Lagdo Dam, on Lagdo Lake in the Northern Province of Cameroun, but government officials claim the water from the dam only affected areas along the River Benue – including Benue and Kogi States –and it was not responsible for the disasters in the southern parts of Nigeria, particularly the Niger Delta region. They blame most of it on climate change factors like the unprecedented heavy rains this year and consequent rise in water levels. However, there is no doubt that freeing water from the Lagdo Dam was responsible for the flooding downstream on the Benue trail, down to Lokoja where the River Niger meets with River Benue.
Whatever the cause, the flooding has left on its trail pain, tears and death as a result of homelessness, hunger and disease. Water borne diseases have started ravaging the affected communities and epidemic is already being reported in some areas – a situation that requires urgent emergency response. Some communities are counting their deaths in tens while others are faced with refugee situations. Relief materials are being mobilised but it looks like a speck, given the extent of damage on the ground.
Of course, there are more far-reaching implications as food security is threatened across the country. Food prices are likely to increase in the coming months as some of the major agriculture belts have been ravaged. Olam, a major participant in the food processing sector, recently alerted of imminent food crises and advised that government might have to open the borders for foreign rice to come in. All its huge rice fields in Nasarawa State have been flooded. The small holder farmers whose farms have gone under the flood are yet to aggregate their losses. The agriculture sector has been badly affected and the results might begin to show in no distant time.
In discussing the devastation that the flooding had wrought, the fallouts of which are still being tackled, it is important to look at the dynamics of the flow of water as a result of opening up a dam, and also what international best practice entails vis-a-vis what the Cameroonians authorities have done or have not done and what the Nigerian side have done or failed to do.
Cameroon began to make moves of building the dam about 1977. International law governing the building of dams requires that the hosting country must request all neighbouring countries to submit an Environmental Impact Assessment Report. This is to gauge the level of impact the project will have on the surrounding areas when operational and to assist in incorporating mitigation measures. Cameroon did as required, but the Nigerian side – by omission or commission – did not do the needful in record time. When it was done eventually, it was recommended that Nigeria should build a flood catchment dam down the river Benue to provide a bulwark for the rush water that would perennially be released for the Lagdo Dam, a facility that would also help in irrigation and farming activities in Nigeria.
That was not done, but that did not stop Cameroon from going ahead with the project, having fulfilled its own side of the bargain. As required by convention, whenever the dam is about to overflow, Cameroonian authorities will inform countries in the catchment areas of the planned release of water from the dam to avoid bursting and to forestall a more catastrophic situation to the catchment areas, including Cameroun, if not released.
While Nigerian authorities are claiming on one hand that the relevant agencies in the country had alerted the affected communities of imminent devastating flood situation this year and advised on measures to avoid fundamental damages, they denied that the Cameroonian authorities had given appropriate notice of releasing water from the Lagdo Dam this year.
Passing the buck has become so common in our official quarters over time and it is now difficult to know when government officials are telling the truth. One thing is however obvious – the tardiness in government circles have become legendary. Things keep happening on a routine basis without solutions being found for them. Instead, excuses and reasons for their occurence occupy the already overstretched space after lives and livelihood have been destroyed and tonnes of funds thrown into needless disaster fallouts.
Some of these very disastrous situations do not just happen on us; they have early warning signals. It is our position that the appropriate Nigerian authorities should be proactive and must learn to respond to situations promptly, to warn the people and insist on compliance beforehand. And the people must also learn to respond to warning signals and not wait until disaster comes upon them before they begin to respond, by which time severe but avoidable damage must have been done. The people must also take responsibility for their obstinacy, particularly where rules were flouted and warnings ignored.
Blaming government for every disaster and allegations of lack of appropriate responses has become regular fare in Nigeria, but we also know that there are certain things to avoid in order not to create room for pains. There are certain areas in river beds or down river valleys where human habitation should and must not be encouraged because of flooding. It is noticeable that Nigerians care less about such potential dangerous situations. When danger strikes, they look for those to blame for their obviously avoidable predicaments. Some build and block drainages, river pathways, valleys, other water access routes and sewage tracks. In this wise, government should be more serious with enforcement and compliance and not wait until disaster strikes before attempting action.
Whenever disaster strikes, the relevant emergency management and humanitarian agencies must respond to the fallouts within the shortest possible time. They should also be pro-active in their approach to issues as there are likely to be some limitations to how much can be covered when disaster sets in at short or no notice at all. Compliance must be enforced on issues that are likely to create environmental problems. We must not wait for disaster to happen before we start acting and apportioning blames. The people must take responsibility for the safety of their environment, because they are the potential victims. Government must not only be heard but seen to be doing something fundamental to stem the spate of disasters in our environment.
Importantly, there must be concerted efforts to carry farmers along at all times if we must avert food crisis. The country is already battling armed insecurity; it would be terrible if the current depreciating food situation escalates to a crisis level. It is advisable that we return to the days of Agriculture Extension Services where more than just a passing attention was given to farmers. At the height of the flooding, some local farmers lost everything they harvested. Most of the losses were due to lack of proper information on storage and plans for the next planting season. Some would have taken precautions and probably made provision for nurseries which would have aided transplanting.
Although government officials have indicated that the required catchment dam is under construction down the Benue River, this should be considered a matter of urgent national importance and all necessary efforts and resources must be devoted to the speedy completion of the project to ensure that this recurring flooding situation never occurs again.