Flood Without End — Nigeria’s Self-Inflicted Albatross
In 1953, the historic North Sea Flood took place (1). The shorelines of Scotland, Belgium, England, and the Netherlands were completely destroyed due to the storm and 16-foot sea waves. 1,835 Dutch citizens were among the more than 2,000 fatalities, and more than 70,000 people were displaced. 9% of the Netherlands’ surface, or about 150,000 hectares, was submerged. Catastrophic damage occurred to more than 47,300 homes and farmlands. An estimated 30,000 animals drowned.
Nature has especially made the Netherlands susceptible to flooding. Due to the majority of its area being below sea level, the name “Netherlands,” which means low countries, is appropriate (2). The International airport, which is located in a region that is below sea level by 5 meters, is among more than 60% of the country’s surface area that is at risk of flooding. But it is one thing for nature to deal you with one hand; it is another for you to accept it. The Dutch have a saying:
“God created the world, but the Dutch created the Netherlands” (3)
It is an excellent example of their mindset in dealing with tragedies caused by nature, including floods. For instance, no sooner had the North Sea Flood taken place than the Netherlands set out to ensure that it would never happen again. The severity of the crisis forced the Dutch to come up with long-lasting solutions to the flooding issue. To address the situation, the Delta Commission was established (4). In order to improve the nation’s water management system and lessen the effects of water-related disasters, the commission launched a series of nationwide projects known as Delta Works (5). This 16-project series involves building dams, sluices, storm surge barriers, and dikes. This project would last till 2050. The structures built separate sea water from fresh water. The shorelines have therefore been pushed farther out into the water and away from populated areas. To kill two birds with one stone, fresh water suited for agricultural use is stored behind these defenses. Today, this small country is known for having the best flood control system in the world, which uses cutting-edge techniques and technologies to fight flooding (6).
One Disaster, Different Responses
Many Nigerians reading this may be surprised to know (because they are likely to be living in urban areas) that Nigeria has a long history with flooding. Aside the intense flooding in the 1980s and 1990s, between 2012 and now, the cases of flooding that have caused untold hardship are well documented. In 2012, devastating flooding forced two million Nigerians from their homes and 363 died (7). In 2015, more than 100,000 were displaced, with 53 deaths (8). In 2016, 92,000 were displaced and 38 died (9). In 2017, floods affected 250,000 people (10). In 2018, floods affected 1.9 million people, destroyed 82,000 houses, displaced 210,000 people, and devastated crops and livestock (11). In 2019, floods affected around 21,000 households, with more than 40,000 men, women, and children having little or no access to food or basic humanitarian services (12). In 2020, floods cumulatively impacted 192,594 people across Nigeria (13). Some 826 were injured, and 155 fatalities were recorded. In 2021, there were tons and tons of articles almost every month about flooding in Adamawa (14), Abuja (15), Niger (16), Jigawa (17), Bauchi (18), Taraba (19), etc.
Therefore, when the year started, it was only a matter of time before the news of flooding commenced again. Every year, floods get worse, making them a recurring problem that causes enormous loss and trauma. No matter what is being said in the media, it appears the agencies in charge of managing and preventing the flood disaster, including the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development, the National Emergency Management Agency, and the Ministry of Works, see the flood disaster in one year, make a press conference, and wait to give another in the next. Where is the coordination you expect from the executive and legislature to address the problems?
A Disastrous Official Response
While responding to the 2022 flooding that has been recognized by the international community as the worst in a decade (20), two agencies of the federal government could not agree on the statistics. While the Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development gave the death toll as a specific 603 (21), her subordinate at the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) put his estimates above 500 (22). NEMA said 70,566 hectares of farmland have been destroyed, while the minister said 440,719 hectares have been partially or wholly damaged. There is also a wide disparity between their figures on the total number of partially or wholly damaged houses. We do not have any publicly available reference documents from either the ministry or the agency.
How do we trust the data put out officially when it is obvious there is a lack of synergy in official quarters? Some have said that the figures dished out are definitely underreported. If the figures reported below are underreported, then I don’t know what to say:
Persons Affected: 2,504,095
Persons Displaced: 1,302,589
Houses Damaged: 121,318
Farmlands Damaged (in Hectares): 440,719
Persons Injured: 2,407
Deaths: 603 (23)
These are mouth-gaping figures. For context, 440,719 hectares is larger than the whole of Lagos state. Every year, the Nigeria Meteorological Agency and the Nigeria Hydrological Service Agency publish annual flood predictions before the beginning of the rainy season. This year was no exception. In May, they predicted that 233 local government areas in 32 states would be in high-risk flood zones (24). This year’s season was predicted to be unusually rainy. The federal government, which funds these agencies, as well as the state governments, which ought to pay close attention, have not heeded these warnings and taken them into account in policy responses. Homes constructed on floodplains and recognized waterways were permitted to stay. There are no drainage canals, or they are poorly maintained. Runoff and floodwaters have nowhere to go as a result.
In instances like this, nature is made the usual culprit for a lack of incompetence. Several media channels have made the discussion about climate change and its attendant effects. But while flash floods and rivers spilling have definitely become more likely as a result of the heavy rains, Nigeria is not the only place rain falls year in and year out. We will always have unusual flooding as long as we don’t accept that certain factors cause it.
For instance, dams have been identified as important for preventing flooding since the 1960s, when the first dam was built in Nigeria (25). But instead of building more dams for flood control, hydropower generation dominates the functions of many large dams. The dams constructed have been so neglected that experts say mature trees are growing on their faces (26). Many other dams that should have been constructed to prevent flooding, like the Zungeru dam, have been left uncompleted for years (27). Over 40 years ago, Cameroon and Nigeria discussed the potential for floods due to water overflowing from a dam in Cameroon (Lagdo Dam). The Nigerian government agreed to construct its own dam (the Dasin Hausa Dam) in Adamawa to hold back excess water from Cameroon and reduce the likelihood of floods. This dam was supposed to be two and a half times the size of the Lagdo dam (28). Unfortunately, the Dasin Hausa dam has not been completed by the Nigerian government since 1982. That’s why the states of Kogi and Benue, as well as the northeastern ones, are always inundated whenever the Cameroonian government lets water out of the Lagdo dam. On September 13, 2022, the Cameroonian electricity provider, Eneo Cameroon, issued a statement warning its residents to evacuate flood-prone areas between September and October 2022. The effects of the floods could have been mitigated if the government of Nigeria had taken similar measures (29).
There is also a lot to be said about our poor town planning culture. This has made the flooding worse. Lokoja, which has been disproportionately affected by the flood, has massive development along the Niger River. Lokoja is particularly prone to flooding because it is at the meeting-point of the Benue and Niger rivers (30). The same developments can be seen along the Niger River in Benue, Nasarawa, and Kogi States. These developments occur without regulation, with people constructing on floodplains despite the lack of adequate drainage systems. The lack of oversight in town planning means that there is insufficient data on the amount of land that has been built on, making it impossible to accurately analyze the situation. To worsen the situation, inexistent waste systems lead people to dump garbage on the street, which in turn clogs drainage systems in cities, already struggling to handle normal rainfall levels. I hate to say it, but if a comprehensive and holistic approach is not taken to address the issue of town planning, flooding will continue to get worse. Rapid urbanization and an increase in the population — now estimated at 210 million — will only cause people to take more and more life-threatening risks, all in a bid to house themselves.
Band-Aid On a Bullet Wound
When General Eugene Reybold, Chief of Engineers, United States Army, testified before the United States Senate on the issue of flood control in 1944, he warned that when the crisis is over and the excitement wears off, there will be an all-too-rapid return to unwarranted complacency (31, page 15).This is all-too-common in Nigeria. In 2012, the nation recorded its scariest flood experience when 2 million Nigerians were displaced, and 363 individuals died (32). The event cost the country an estimated $16.9 billion in total losses. In the immediate aftermath of this tragedy, the government set up the Presidential Committee on Flood Relief and Rehabilitation, headed by Africa’s richest man, Alhaji Aliko Dangote (33). Donations of more than $22 million to assist flood victims poured in. The federal and many state governments also made promises. Alas, not too long after, a spokesperson for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) stated that the number of people in need of flood relief was rising because two-thirds of displaced Nigerians are getting their drinking water from ponds, streams, or unprotected wells, and because about 70% of them lack basic sanitation (34). It cannot be business as usual. It is not enough for photo-ops to be done and legs dipped into flood water, there must be synergy between the different arms of government, levels of government, and the private sector. In responding to the Senate in 1944, General Reybold said a project for disaster control ought to be initiated by the people and their elected representatives in Congress. How many elected officials have checked on their constituencies since the flooding started?
Also important in the aftermath of hundreds of thousands of farmlands destroyed is the need for urgent actions to be taken to avert an impending food crisis, if it is not already too late. Wheat is the country’s second-largest import item, and FX limitations on wheat importers and maize importers (who pay a 30% levy) need to be rolled down so that supply shortfalls can be filled. When the Ukraine-Russia war started to affect energy prices, European countries rolled back their climate change goals. The so-called EU “green deal” and the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change are at a standstill. Britain is boosting oil production, while Germany has reopened coal-fired power plants to ensure the lights don’t go out this winter (36). While I have never been in support of the protectionist policies as seen in my articles of the past (36) (37) (38), it is doubly important that we let go completely. Currently, marketers are compelled to obtain foreign currency through the black market, driving up the price of staples like bread and noodles (39). Even though there was record production of maize in 2021, we are still not self-sufficient, and the production levels will be worse this year (40). The situation is worse with rice, whose imports have been completely banned. Despite pushing for increasing domestic production, prices remain high. With the farms flooded, you can expect supply to be constrained and smuggling of imported rice to rise. Olam Rice Farm, which is considered the largest rice farm in Africa, had its farms destroyed (41). It has recorded over $15 million in crop loss and another $8 million in infrastructure loss.
We Must Not Wait
Without putting a stop to these protectionist policies, food inflation will continue to gallop. Higher food prices are a matter of when, not if, given that the Ukraine-Russia conflict is already driving up fertilizer costs (42). This is without taking into account the heightened insecurity that has not abated all over the country, as well as logistical challenges occasioned by bad roads. The country has little capacity and incentive to continue its protectionist policies. The current situation is already a predicament. We cannot afford to make it worse. If critical imports are not guaranteed, the economy of the country could collapse. I can assure the reader that this year’s food production has been fatally impacted. Next year’s food inflation would be worse than the 23% it is at the moment (43). The damage to the country’s economy must be stopped as soon as possible, and the government must act quickly.
For you the reader, you may think that the cost of food is already unbearable. But while I hate to be the bearer of bad news, this has to be said: Winter is coming. If you have the means, put your house in order. If you do not, well, may God or whatever you believe in (if you believe) be with you.