Accra’s June 3rd Floods: Looking Back to Move Forward

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The Urban Platform of Ghana is a network of professionals and enthusiasts with interests in urban development in Ghana’s cities and good urban development practices globally. The Platform brings together knowledge, experience and contributions from more than 170 professionals with discussions, debates and information sharing.  In the wake of Accra’s deadly flooding disaster of June 3, 2015, the Ghana Urban Platform leveraged its expertise, experience and passion to provide insight and perspective on how Accra must move forward. This article is published with permission.

In June 2015, Accra experienced its worst flooding disaster in recent history. The effect of this flood on our capital city was without question the worst in years – with fatalities hovering close to 200 persons. In addition to loss of life, the loss and damage to our homes, local businesses, property and livelihoods are inestimable. It is a fact that flooding is not new to the city. What’s more, both the consequences of flooding and necessary mitigating interventions have been well documented through research and reports, by key stakeholders including the Accra Metropolitan Assembly (AMA), and reputable academics at home and abroad. This wealth of information is within reach and makes it unconscionable and unacceptable that flooding remains such a challenge for all these decades in spite of improving fortunes of the city. We, as residents, managers and users of the city, have together lacked the collective will to prevent continued loss of life, livelihoods, our homes and other property, and it is to our shared shame that this is so.

This latest tragedy provides perhaps the last opportunity for self-reflection and a sustainable resolution and we, the Urban Platform of Ghana, proffer our considered opinion in the quest for this critical imperative to address this perennial problem once and for all.

What do we know?
We know our city’s major vulnerable points. There are several publications that alert us to the metropolis’ vulnerabilities to flooding and other disasters and a lot are readily available (for example UN-Habitat’s paper on Accra’s vulnerabilities; a paper on health watch and disaster monitoring; on geomorphic assessment of the floods;  from integrated hydrological and economic perspectives; from impact assessment of sea level rise perspective; and from a methodological approach in identifying these vulnerabilities, among many others). It is impossible for anyone to plead ignorance given the volume of research work and commissioned studies that has gone on in the past years. The fact that such body of knowledge, brimming with signals and signposts of vulnerability, is not being used points to a figurative chasm between the Mayor and the Vice Chancellor.

There are several localities within the metropolis that are low-lying and naturally vulnerable to floods. The Accra Metropolitan Assembly, on their own accord and for long, know about the flood-prone localities, including Dansoman, Teshie, Nungua Dzorwulu, Nima, Darkuman and Alajo, each with their cause of flooding identified. The causes span topography, engineering, planning, finance, social development, culture, and other immediate or remote factors. In all of these localities the risk of flooding from nature has been aggravated by both planned and unplanned developments. Significant numbers of residents in sections of Dzorwulu, Dansoman, Nungua, Odwana, Abeka and Kaneshie experience flooding quite frequently, because they are sited on flood-prone land, much of which is below sea level and makes it difficult to drain off quickly into the ocean. It therefore beggars belief that 40 years on, we remain in this condition and suggests that collectively, we, residents, managers and users combined, are suffering amnesia bordering on dementia or are addicted to self-flagellation. Has the city lost its memory entirely and has no capacity at all to be warned of recurring disasters? Can there be any explanation for the paralysis that constrains us from taking action in the face of such foreseen danger? Or do we enjoy the pain of endangerment and loss?

There is nothing more shameful than how we have all treated our water bodies. Pollution and the poor management of natural water bodies contribute to stagnation of water and flooding and now we are acting surprised that the city flooded. The Odaw River, the Korle and Kpeshie Lagoons are the most polluted water bodies and have become the cesspool for most of Accra’s industrial and municipal waste. There has been absolutely no control on the dumping of waste in these water bodies even though there is a plethora of laws and ordinances for the management of commercial, industrial and residential activities. Relatively smaller rivers have also lost their natural courses and trails due to indiscriminate and uncontrolled developments in waterways, resulting in stagnant water and flooding when limits are pushed during heavy rains.

Throughout the city, drains do exist, but many are uncovered, undersized, unconnected or improperly channeled. This limited infrastructure is further tested by the constriction of the carriage capacity by waste dumping that we see throughout the city. For a citizenry not minded about good waste practices, the penchant for constructing open drains is certainly an open invitation dumping, more so when alternatives for refuse disposal is limited and enforcement is weak. Worse still is the lack of connectivity of our drains, perhaps reflecting the multiplicity of actors, and certainly the poor coordination, involved in the planning, design, construction and maintenance of the systems from primary to tertiary drains. There are (1) the Hydrology Department of the Ministry of Water Resources, Works and Housing, (MWRWH), (2) the Department of Urban Roads (from Head office through to the regional offices) working under the Ministry of Roads and Highways, and (3) the Urban Roads Department and the Works Department of the respective local governments under the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development, all involved in drainage development and management. Clearly strong coordination in the planning, installation and management of the drainage network is imperative and urgent. The absence of proper networks of drainage (comprising and ranging from primary to tertiary) is an existential threat for human settlements everywhere and certainly cities in Ghana. It is inescapable that the many instances of poor sizing, poor connections, and ineffective elevations that constrain the collection of run-off illustrates the lack of appreciation of the network concept.

In view of this, is it any wonder the efforts to address the problem such as the Korle Lagoon Ecological Restoration Project (KLERP) and the Odaw drainage improvement works under the Urban Environmental Sanitation Project (UESP) have not been successful? Started almost a decade ago, both the Odaw drainage improvement works and KLERP were meant to ecologically restore the lagoon and thereby mitigate perennial flooding. The failure is testament to the entrenchment of our collective malaise.

Climate change brings with it more extreme, more deadly rainfalls, storms and threats of flooding. Our new reality is that Accra’s geography as a coastal city makes it all the more vulnerable to extreme weather conditions associated with climate change. Studies in climate variability envisages changes in the patterns and intensity of rainfall events for Ghana and its coastal cities like Accra. We can expect that Accra’s bimodal rainfall periods, from March to July and from September to November and with average annual rainfall of about 810mm, will become intense and exacerbate the challenges if we do not address the fundamental factors. For one, our city will face even more dire conditions if the stormwater or surface runoff that follows the rains are not properly managed or drained quickly, especially for the various flood-prone communities.

Climate change compels us to think about how the drains link up with the water bodies running through the city. It brings to the fore the absence of management plans for these water bodies with the exception of the Densu River Basin, which is managed by the Water Resources Commission. The rest of Accra’s river catchments, Odaw-Korle-Chemu catchment and the Kpeshie and Songo-Mokwe drainage systems, are unmanaged. So too the Onyasia, Mukose, Nima and the other streams. Reclamation for unapproved residential and commercial developments are enhancing the encroachment and pollution of these bodies and thereby ensuring their death. It is these sites that become some of the hardest hit areas by floods. Climate change will worsen such weaknesses, resulting in more disastrous and deadly weather events.

Accra’s “urban sprawl” – the city’s uncontrolled physical expansion at the periphery – means the metropolitan area is continually expanding in surface area. This sprawl that characterizes our city also contributes to the increasing volume of run-off to be drained. The sprawl also increases the cost of requisite infrastructure, roads, sewers and drains, needed to channel rainwater away during heavy storms such as those of June 3rd.

Domesticated dams aggravate flood conditions
The persisting practice of extensive concreting and tiling of our building plots is leaving less land available to contain domestic run offs within our compounds and thereby increasing the volume of run-off that has to be managed through municipal drainage systems. It has become aspirational for floor tiling to be constructed to cover entire compounds and through that practice we are unwittingly intensifying the damming of water more than the drains can contain. The inability to have more water infiltrate the ground within our compounds has the effect of reducing the chances for recharging the ground water. Thus the inundation is becoming a home-grown problem and we have to address that urgently.

The causes of flooding are very clear: We must take responsibility, we must move forward
The recent flooding and its impact on the lives of our fellow citizens, their livelihoods and property have exposed our city’s unpreparedness to deal with this kind of disaster. In the weeks following the city’s floods, the causes as well as forward-looking measures have been on the minds of members of the Urban Platform of Ghana to ensure this disaster isn’t repeated in the future. We believe that in order to transform Accra into a resilient city, we must identify the entirety of the city’s weaknesses and address them in tandem as part of a cohesive mitigation strategy.

A city-wide response will require that all of us – city government, civil society, urban professionals and citizens alike – take responsibility and take action so that the flooding of June 3, 2015 does not happen again. However our response must be tailored to the complex factors our capital faces. Knee-jerk reactions were not the answer in the past, nor are they the quick answer this time around. Indeed, there is no quick answer. It is knee jerk not to recognize that the cause of, and solutions to flooding is multi-faceted, as the discussion above shows.

Following the floods, Accra’s city authorities embarked on a city-wide demolition exercise, attributing the flood to the illegal siting of properties on water courses that consequently obstructed existing drains from working optimally. While construction on natural waterways obstructs the free-flow of surface water runoff and consequently contribute to flooding, the causes of Accra’s floods go beyond ‘unauthorized structures’ built on waterways. Demolishing these structures is not a silver bullet to solving the flooding situation in the city. If history is any indication, the AMA’s demolishing exercise will only leave several residents stranded. In 2002, over 150 ‘unauthorized’ structures were demolished by the AMA in its bid to make Accra a flood-free zone. Similarly, in 2007 over 25 structures built on waterways were demolished by the AMA and in 2008, about 50 structures, yet the floods came stronger in subsequent years, till today. We dare say that to misconstrue and misrepresent the flooding problem only as one of poorly sited structures and yet focus exclusively on the locales of the poor is a deliberate rhetorical sleight of hand to obfuscate the issues in lieu of tangible and sustainable solutions.

As our members voiced, there are a number of concrete measures that must be in place to shore up the city’s preparedness for rains, as part of an integrated climate change response and resilience development strategy. Our members believe that the City of Accra is once again exposed to the core and hope that our recommendations that we offer [in the] short, medium and long term, will receive a good hearing. Many have expressed fear that solutions proffered may not be given a fair hearing as succinctly put by one “the solutions are known; it is the implementation that is a problem”.

Our Suggestions:
We recognize the substantial industry that has emerged out of the proffering of (solicited and unsolicited) advice directing the way forward. We, recognizing that there are some very good solutions put forward by others, make a few additions to those alternatives offered.

  1. Develop a comprehensive city-wide vulnerability study, hydrological modelling and integrated flood plan for increased resiliency.
    Based on the large body of knowledge available, the city must invest in the synthesis of the information, updating its own knowledge, and craft a coherent strategy based on evidence. The AMA must move from anecdote to reality in establishing the cause of flooding in the city. Every solution has to be borne in evidence. The paucity of evidence-based policy actions must not persist just as the distance between the Mayor and the Vice Chancellor must not be allowed to continue. Accra’s recent addition to the 100 Resilient Cities Network provides further opportunity to do this, by learning from other cities’ responses to flooding. Indeed, Accra has already cited key water issues — water pollution and outbreaks — as its key resilience challenges. However June 3rd teaches us that another water issue – flooding – is just as critical. In reality, water pollution, cholera and flooding are intricately linked andmust be part of Accra’s bid to develop a solid resilience strategy. As a member of the100RC network, wehave the opportunity to learn from the positive experiences of cities like Bangkok (Thailand), Chennai (India), Mexico City (Mexico), Kigali (Rwanda) and Durban (South Africa) in addressing flooding in their cities.This [flood] is our opportunity to know Accra’s problems too. As one of our members has argued, “Planning a development is useless in the dry season. You have to wait for the rainy season then the problems with the site become obvious.” On this note, we concur with the views of IMANI research fellow Bright Simons and the roadmap put forward. There should be a city-wide study that examines, for example, how unplanned developments along waterways inform our flooding problem. Updating the city’s hydrological and urban geography maps, and developing a flood model, based on detailed diagrams of the city’s past floods are essential to our understanding. Comparing the flood model with observed actual patterns at the city’s “flooding hotspots,” will enable distinction between direct underlying causes and contributory causes.
  2. Invest in storm infrastructure, in addition to drains, to address high water levels.
    In addressing the type of infrastructure needed, we call for better engineering analysis and designs. Itis posited that yes, the sea level is theoretically 0 metres. However, the high tide raises the sea to about 0.5 m and in a storm itcan be up to 1m high. This makes Accra’s drainage system, which depends entirely on gravity flow (meaning they enter the sea by following the topography of the land) useless in a night-time tropical storm. [Drains and gutters] end up disappearing under the height of the waves and the lagoons back up. Thereshould be pumping stations constructed to take water from storm drains. Then artificial pumps will lift these into pipes whose outfall will be about 2m high as they pour thestormwater into the sea.We can also ambitiously pilot some of the innovative water defense systems in cities like Amsterdam, by creating artificial surface water collectors, sluice gates and mini dams, scenic aesthetic ponds/pools, (with high absorbing bases), etc to complement a good network of drains in Accra.
  3. Improve predictive capacity and develop early warning systems for floods and other disasters.
    The accuracy of weather forecasts is an essential ingredient to flood management and disaster response. Similarly, early warning systems can play an important role in mitigating impacts of flood on lives, livelihoods and property. Investments in weather forecasting instrumentation and knowledge is sine qua non for a resilient Accra. We need to develop effective early warning systems so that those in flood-prone areas can be identified and notified with critical flood information. One of our members well versed GIS and ICT advises that mobile technologies could be used to share flood alerts via text messages or mobile applications, allowing users to obtain flood-related information for their location. In advance of heavy rains, the AMA could leverage these systems to initiate alerts to those with properties and businesses near storm drains to clear debris and avoid costly flooding.
  4. Educate and work with citizens and communities to improve public understanding of Accra’s flood vulnerabilities, and to stop rubbish dumping in gutters and drains.
    The AMA could and should take proactive steps to manage encroachment in uninhabitable areas and encourage residents to maintain their drains. The city authorities should conscript the citizenry through positive engagement on the structure plans and local plans by which the city determines the respective land uses. If the level of engagement is high, there is every hope that the citizens will become positive vigilantes in defense of the assigned land uses. Furthermore, theMetropolitan Works Department and the Roads Department, with technical advice from the Hydrological Services Department, should assist households to construct proper drains to carry runoff from houses into tertiary drains. The Works Department should supervise, where necessary, the erection of ramps and retaining walls. Households must also contribute, by not dumping consumer waste like plastic bottles and bags in drains and gutters.
  5. Constructive and solutions-focused engagement between academics and researchers, urban professionals and policymakers.
    A wealth of scholarship exists on the city’s risks to flooding, and the widespread research, articles and editorials on proposed solutions demonstrates the wealth of informed perspectives that if properly leveraged, could serve to improve the mitigation of flooding risks and enhancing resilience in Accra’s readiness for future floods. However, as noted earlier, the bridge between academics and researchers on the one hand, and planners and policy makers on the other hand must be built and reinforced. The former practice where academics continue to churn out evidence-based research in isolation and which rarely translates into proper action just as policy makers in turn plan, design and propose in isolation from academics and urban professionals must end. As one member noted, “Combining [this] with the research of [Professor Jacob] Songsore, [Professor Martin] Oteng-Ababio, the International Water Management Institute, etc., it reinforces the view that so much scholarship is within reach except planners and policy makers have not reached out, and academics and researchers have not been proactive in engaging.” These actors must come together for proactive, solutions-focused engagement.
  6. Demand more accountable government, with enforcement, action and responsibility.
    “What does AMA use our money for?” is a common question that has come up in the weeks since the flood, and this question highlights the need for more transparent, and more participatory government budgeting processes. Inefficient building permit processes, failure todesilt theOdaw Channel and failure to prioritize improved infrastructure resulted in disastrous consequences for our fellow citizens. Enforcing existing laws and services to protect the common good are also key.We tell ourselves that we are powerless against the floods. But when we come together as citizens, professionals, government, civil society and institutions, we can tackle this urban challenge. By learning some hard lessons, we can minimize Accra’s future risks, and safeguard all citizens, especially the urban poor, against the deadly and disastrous effects of flooding.