Opinion (18/7/17): Floods and the rainmakers of Lagos Island, by Reuben Abati
“To live in Lagos Island, these days, one needs to engage the services of rainmakers during the rainy season”, a friend who lives in that part of Lagos told me the other day. The job of a rainmaker, as known in our traditional communities, is actually to stop the rain from falling or to divert the rain to other locations, to allow people to hold an event without the threat of a heavy rainfall disturbing guests and participants. In those days when social parties used to be held more on open fields rather than event centres, the rainmaker was a necessary component to ensure positive outcomes. He deploys chants and an appeal to the supernatural, the invisible spiritual consciousness, to halt nature from taking a disruptive course. But who has ever heard of anyone stopping the rains from falling on a permanent basis?
My friend said that was not the intention, but that at the last Landlords/Residents Association meeting that was held in the estate where he lives in Lagos Island, one of the ideas that came up was that every rainy season, the estate could engage the services of rainmakers, to protect the estate from heavy rainfall and flooding. Someone reportedly actually recommended an uncle of his who is said to be a renowned rainmaker! I dismissed the idea as hare-brained and impracticable.
But it is possible to understand the reason for this desperation. The last time it rained heavily in Lagos, about a week or more ago, the better part of the Island was flooded. On Ahmadu Bello Way, a fellow was seen swimming comfortably, two men jumped into their canoes and rowed around with relish. The nearby ocean and rivers had spilled onto the road, due to the rise in the water level, resulting in the displacement of animals from their natural habitat, pollution and destruction.
The pictures were shown of a fish that was found in the flood, and of a crocodile that followed the flow of water into living spaces. Vehicles and homes were submerged. In some homes, the families were trapped upstairs, the water level having travelled as high as the windowsill. When some families finally managed to escape, they had to relocate to hotels or the homes of family and friends. Families were disorganized and separated. Some people came down with fever and water borne diseases and many are yet to recover. The state government had to close down the road.
Given the number of high profile businesses in that part of the city, the financial worth of recorded losses was huge. Real estate investment in Victoria Island alone is worth over $12 billion and with those structures being assailed regularly by acidic flood; it won’t be long before they give way. The inherent paradox here is that whereas capitalism exploits nature and its resources for profit, it is in turn destroyed by it.
Flooding is a major, global environmental crisis, and the effect has always been devastating. Since 1960, Nigeria has been exposed to perennial flash and river floods. In the 80s, the overflow of the Ogunpa river caused so much damage in Ibadan, resulting in the popular phrase: “Omiyale”. The identified reason was that people were throwing garbage into the river; drainages and other water channels had also been blocked with refuse. The release of water from the Oyan dam also in other years resulted in massive flooding affecting places like Ogunpa, Challenge and Eleyele in Ibadan, and when the Ogun dam is drained, several parts of Ogun State are flooded. Each time water is released from the Lagdo dam in Cameroon there is flooding in Benue and Taraba States, farmlands are destroyed, raising fears about food crisis.
There have also been reports of flooding in the coastal plains of Nigeria, in the plains of the Niger Delta, the Rivers Niger and Benue particularly, and in the Plateau area whenever the Lamingo dam overflows. The worst flood in Nigeria occurred between July and November 2012. Thirty states out of 36 states of the Federation were affected, 2.1 million people were displaced, 363 people died, 6, 000 houses were destroyed. It was the worst flood in 40 years.
Whenever there is a major case of flooding in Nigeria, the standard response by government is to announce a relief and rehabilitation fund and express profound sympathy. The Nigerian government is certainly very good at expressing sympathy! In 2012, the Jonathan administration announced the immediate release of N17.6 billion. This year, Acting President Osinbajo responded in similar manner by approving the release of N1.6 billion. In some other parts of the world, steps are taken to ensure that the effect of flooding is mitigated, and controlled on a sustainable basis. Throwing money at the problem without any strategic plan to address the natural and artificial causes of flooding has not helped Nigeria over the years. Apparently the only people who enjoy flooding are the government officials who manage these funds. Since 1980 and the award of a N10 billion contract, the channelization of the Ogunpa River in Ibadan is yet to be completed, 37 years later!
Obviously, the problem of flooding is not likely to disappear so soon. The Federal Ministry of Environment, the Ministry of Water Resources and the Nigeria Meteorological Agency (NIMET) have announced, following the floods this year in Lagos (losses already defined above), Jos (38 people died, 200 houses destroyed); Suleja (13 dead, 500 missing, 100 homes destroyed) and Kaita, Katsina (2,000 people displaced, 150 houses destroyed) that there is likely to be much worse flooding in 30 states of the Federation between July and November 2017. This sounds like a possible re-enactment of the 2012 scenario. While environmental habits may be responsible for much of the flooding that occurs, the key message that perennial flooding conveys is partly the real dangers of global warming and climate change.
African countries are negatively affected by this phenomenon and with most Nigerian communities located in low-lying areas, heavy rainfall could often result in ocean surge, flooding, erosion, or an imbalance in the ecosystem. In Nigeria, we have not yet developed mechanisms for managing the vagaries of nature. We take things for granted as a people, and as government. We defy nature and pay the price for so doing. In the absence of a functional waste management system in our cities, people continue to throw garbage into the seas and drainages. Managing the risks of climate change and environmental challenges is not a job for rainmakers; it requires more strategic thinking in terms of urban renewal, citizen education and policy execution.
Much of the disasters that we face today with increased flooding and our climate-sensitive agricultural sector was long foretold. More than a decade ago, for example, Professor Benjamin Akpati of the Nigeria Institute of Oceanography and Marine Research used to warn both Lagosians and the Federal government about the chaotic spread of residential developments in Lagos Island, a part of Lagos that has always been water-logged. In the 60s, the beachfront of the Atlantic was more than a mile away from where it is today. Professor Akpati argued that the aggressive extension of constructions into the river space would lead to a day when with a dramatic rise in the water level, the entire Lagos Island would drown or disappear into the water. Nobody listened.
Government after government kept approving the reclamation of land from the sea. Today, many buildings in Lagos Island are practically sitting on a foundation of water. Reclamation continues unabated, from Ilubirin to Park View to Lekki, and beyond; on the other side of the island, the sea is being chased further away. Recently, the Lagos state government further decided to take over Otodo-Gbame and 38 other waterfront communities, the poor who live there are still protesting, and have since gone to court to secure a restraining injunction, for they remember what happened to old Maroko and other spaces that the government took away from the poor and gave to the rich.
There is even a project in Lagos Island called Eko Atlantic City, which when fully developed would be a mini-city on top of the ocean. The Nigeria elite has developed a taste for living “inside water” and yet when the water overflows into their compounds and sitting rooms, they raise an alarm about what is at best, self-inflicted injury.
This probably explains why when the recent floods occurred in Lagos Island, most Lagosians living in the Mainland turned the incident into a matter for class warfare. They laughed at the elite living on the island. A plot of land in some high-brow parts of the Island is as expensive as $2 million and yet when it rains heavily and the ocean overflows its banks, the people flee. “The rich also cry”, someone said. “Evans does not allow me stay in Magodo, I cannot go to Lekki because of flood, I am afraid of Badoo in Ikorodu, where do I now live?”, another asked.
I don’t find the agony of the Victoria Island elite amusing, but I think beyond the concern about drainages and the way we treat the environment, the Lagos state government should put a stop to further reclamation of land from the sea. The old story was that the state government had built barriers and embarkments along the Bar Beach but in the past two years, those barriers have not saved Lagos Island from ocean surge.
Man may have developed the capacity to tame nature, after all there are cities and houses built undersea, but with all his endowments, man remains a slave of nature. Human beings are constantly seeking unity with nature, to reduce their fears of its enormity and therefore master it, but through our interaction with the environment that is outside of us; we disrupt nature and create new patterns that violate the ecosystem and the cosmic harmony that we seek.
We cut down the trees in the forest, we pollute the environment, we fail to manage human waste, but because nature is dynamic and mercurial, it fights back and we pay the price. In the South West, ocean surge, blocked drainage, and failed dams are the problem, in the East and the South East, erosion and flood, in the Benue and Plateau, flood and mismanagement of dams, in the North, deforestation and flooding. Nigeria’s climate is definitely changing and we are all at risk and it could get worse.
In May, scientists reported that the Antarctica’s ice sheet is melting more rapidly into the sea, the effect of which is a rise in sea levels across the world, placing the world’s coastal cities at great risk. This would include cities like Lagos, of course, and the entire Niger Delta region. Increase in green gas emission and global temperatures could even make the projected scenarios more devastating. The prediction is that sometime in the future, there could be another Noah’s flood. If that happens, many inhabitants of low-lying coastal areas would be forced to abandon their homes and relocate.
Even in Europe and Asia where the technology for invasive environmental activity is advanced, recent natural phenomena have indicated the limits of technology. In Nigeria, many communities and coastal islands have since disappeared due to erosion and ocean surge, and in the North, deforestation and desertification have proved fatal. Now imagine a scenario some day when all residents of Lagos Island and other coastal parts of Nigeria would have to flee inland. A disastrous environmental crisis in Lagos, which accounts for about 40% of the Nigerian economy could prove apocalyptic for both the country and the populace, and this is precisely why the Federal Government must take a special interest in Lagos State and general matters of the environment. To save our corner of the Earth, we must adapt to the realities of the new age, and change the way we live.
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