Surprised by the Storm

Changes get accepted as normal occurrences when they are uninterrogated. We hear talks of the new normal which could mean that unpredictable change is the norm. We could also take the new normal to creep in when things that initially appeared novel, or even odd, regularly reoccur and we end up accepting and taking them in our stride. In terms of the weather, climate change has birthed the wisdom that nothing will remain normal if humans do not act to stem or reverse the actions and inactions that contribute to the crisis. In this mode, the abnormal can become the normal even if it leads to the extinction of species.

Popular climate narratives attempt to make humans aware of the fact that we are at the crossroads of history, that we are at a moment of crisis driven mostly by vested interests which also promote a stubborn refusal of the powerful to accept the fact that a new ecological ethics cannot be postponed but must be recollected, learned or constructed. Climate deniers speak of freak weather events as normal or that they may not be as bad as they appear. In a flash we are surprised and in flash all is forgotten.

With this mindset, people think of climate change as a new clime of opportunities that must be exploited and profited from. While vulnerable communities, such as those living on threatened coastlines battle for survival in the face of storms, hurricanes and typhoons, disaster entrepreneurs see those events as opportunities to clear the poor from the scenic zones and appropriate them as recreation spots for the rich. When storms and floods batter coastline communities in our cities, slum clearance pops up as the first proffered solution. Rather than build the resilience of the less resourced or serviced communities, erasing them off the map and commodifying their territories become the prime solutions. This reality has been captured in-depth by Naomi Klein in her ground-breaking book, The Shock Doctrine – the Rise of Disaster Capitalism.

The first major rains are beginning to fall in Nigeria and we appear not to have expected that they would fall. Lying mostly in the tropical belt, and although we have dry and wet seasons, the reality is that no month passes by without rainfall in some areas. Not expecting a measure of rain to fall every month has become a normal situation for coastal cities such as Calabar, Lagos and Port Harcourt. This lack of expectation is not built on facts of history, but on the lack of attention to reality.

Already, Port Harcourt experienced its second heavy rainfall on 21January. When the first heavy rain in Lagos fell on 20 January 2019, it was celebration time for some and a tale of woes for many. Some Lagos residents were happily drenched by the downpour while others got trapped in traffic gridlock of the type that floods precipitate in the city. There were interesting and even amusing news reports of the event. Some residents celebrated the fact that the rain would lower current high temperatures and they would enjoy a respite and sleep well that night. For taxi drivers, the rain meant reduced business and possibly hungry families. To cap the reports from the News Agency of Nigeria, we were told that efforts to reach the director of Nigerian Meteorological Agency (NiMet) in Lagos proved abortive as his number “was not reachable.” One could deduce that the rain made it impossible for journalists to reach the director.

Flooding in Lagos says a lot about the climate readiness of Nigerian cities. As the economic capital of Nigeria and as an emerging “mega city,” it would be expected that more investments would be made in the direction of making the city climate smart. Residents of Lagos keep suffering and smiling and they literally take the storms as they come. When floods overran the city in 2017, some residents went kayaking and even fishing on the streets. A crocodile was even caught in the floodwater.

Flood disasters have become regular occurrences in Nigeria and floods along the River Benue and River Niger have become national nightmares. The floods of 2012 led to a reported damage worth up to 2.6 trillion Naira, killed 363 persons and displaced over 2 million others. That flood was caused by a combination of rainfall and release of water from the dams along the two river systems, especially from Lagdo Dam in Cameroon. A whopping 32 out of 36 States of the nation were affected, with 24 affected severely. That flood was followed by a flurry of activities to get relief to citizens whose homes and farmlands were submerged. Some analysts posit that disaster entrepreneurs made a killing from the relief efforts while some victims waited in vain for succour. That too, is increasingly taken as normal. No surprises.

The floods experienced in 2018 killed over 100 persons and pushed many others into internally displaced persons (IDPs) camps. The National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) declared a national disaster in four states – Kogi, Niger, Anambra and Delta. Before the floods came, the Nigeria Hydrological Agency (NHSA) in its flood outlook released in May 2018 projected that Sokoto, Niger, Benue, Anambra, Rivers, Bayelsa, Delta, Anambra, Ogun, Osun, Cross River, Kogi and Yobe states faced high risks of river flooding, while Lagos, Bayelsa, Rivers, Delta, and Ondo states could face coastal flooding.

The forecast for 2019 is still sketchy. NEMA projects that 20 percent of Nigeria’s population is at risk of flooding across the country. At a total population of 170 million persons, this means up to 34 million Nigerians are at risk of flooding impacts this year. That is a dire projection and demands the declaration of a national emergency considering the ecological, economic, health and security implications of this level of risk. If the nation waits until disaster strikes, we will probably take it as one of those inevitable things and simply move on.

It is not acceptable that foreseen disastrous weather events are taken as normal. They are not normal. There is urgent need to put in place policies and actions to address the threats, including response actions. The situation calls for urgent review of drainage and general infrastructure master plans for our urban centres and rural communities. The autonomous and unplanned urban sprawls must be checked. We need the greening of our cities, a focus on soft landscaping and halting of sand filling of wetlands and water bodies in so-called land reclamation efforts. These would enhance natural drainage of flood waters. Flooding is inevitable when rainfall meets clogged drainage systems. The management of solid wastes must become more efficient and single-use plastics should be banned outrightly.

The rains should not take anyone in the tropical belt by surprise except if we are living in denial of reality. It is time for leaders to draw up clear visions and to present the visions to the scrutiny of the citizenry. In an election season, debates are good platforms for such enunciations and we have seen that begin to happen. However, the debates held so far have focused on economic matters without significant reference to the environment which provides the base for the economy, health and overall wellbeing of the people. While we have seen both lackluster and forceful presentations at the debates and political conversations, we have also been treated to vacant podiums not taken by politicians who assume that they already hold the keys that will decide electoral outcomes. It would be a flood of a different kind if the Nigerian electorate rises up and demand to be respected and not to merely have slogans and clichés thrown at them from commercials or at mass rallies. That could be a storm of a different kind.

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