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As the rains come, flooding endangers school children in Africa

Greta Thurnberg is a 16-year-old known all over the world for her environment related activism. Not so long ago she was just a regular teenager but today the convener of the ‘School Strikes for Climate Action’ has taken her activism from her immediate environment to places like the World Economic Forum in Davos to warn industrialists of how their activities are contributing to the global emission challenge.

Part of the strategies used by the young activist includes urging school children all over the world to go on school strikes, but in sub-Saharan Africa, she may find quite a number of children who will be easily persuaded to miss a day of school not due to any activist tendencies but due to circumstances beyond their control.

The rains are here again and have caused enough devastation in the past in many parts of Africa.

The World Foods Programme spokesperson, Hervé Verhoose in a chat with journalists in Geneva said; “Tropical Cyclone Idai…has compounded destructive flooding that has already occurred as far inland as southern Malawi and eastern Zimbabwe. Exceptional rainfall before the cyclone hit, has already affected a total of 1.5 million people in both Southern African countries and claimed more than 120 lives. The cyclone has now reportedly moved west, towards Zimbabwe. In addition, tens of thousands of people have been displaced and homes, roads, bridges and crops have been washed away.” – UN News, March 15, 2019.

On the state of affairs in West Africa; places like Accra are known for flooding. “I was looking for a house to rent in Accra,” says Joy, “I loved the place I found but I was advised that the location I chose would be impassable anytime it rains. I had to look for another apartment in a less flood prone neighborhood”.

In Nigeria specifically, the Minister of Education while making a presentation from the 2019 Nigerian Meteorological Agency on expected rainfall report in January hinted that even though there would be a lower than normal rainfall for 2019 “It is necessary to state that the expected below normal rainfall in parts of the country does not rule out the possibility of isolated flash floods. This is due to high intensity rainfall at the peak of the season, especially in places that are naturally prone to flooding,” he concluded during the interactions

And one of such places is Uselu – Lagos Road in Benin-City where flooding has become a constant. For those coming from King Square or Iyaro, it starts from the Uselu Shell area and ends somewhere around the Uselu Market axis. During such moments, navigating that road which is managed by the Federal Government becomes a great challenge for motorists and pedestrians alike. “When it rains, I dread moving around in this area,” confesses a food seller with a moving cart in Pidgin English.  She is not the only one worried about the rains. Opposite the Uselu market are a group of traders who find it quite challenging during the rainy season to cross the major road. “When it rains, I find it difficult to cross the road,” says Ifeoma with an underwear business, “I have seen many people get injured because they were unable to locate the makeshift slabs at the section where the road is split.”

Goodluck Enofe

Officials of the Egor Local Government secretariat which is just meters away from the market were not ready to give any information on the environmental challenges in that area. Excuses ranged from ‘the officer in charge is not available’ to ‘I just resumed a few days ago’. However, at the more organized Oredo Local Government area secretariat which is located at the popular Kings Square, officials were more forthcoming. The officials knew exactly who was in charge and the head of the Oredo Local Government environment unit, Goodluck Enofe had a lot to say; “Oredo Local Government Area has quite some challenges. Shortage of manpower, technical hands, etc.  By World Health Organisation standards ideally you should have one health officer to 8,000 individuals but here in Oredo Local Government Area, we have only 44 environmental health officers for 350,000 individuals. We lack materials and equipment. For example we need to do more public awareness drives to make the people aware but we do not even have a public address system.”

The constant garbage in an around the gutters in the area confirmed the need Mr Enofa highlighted to make the people of Edo State aware of the dangers of blocking drainages with garbage. This danger manifested in a most unfortunate way for 6-year-old Segun in 2018.  According to eye-witness reports, he was walking with his mum Latifat along Oro Street, in the Uselu Area of Benin-City after school hours. It had rained heavily and he slipped into an open gutter with his mum. A boy scavenging for scraps saved the woman but it was too late for Segun. A source at the Oredo Local Government Area office says till date his body had not been found. The psychological impact of these kinds of loss is not lost to Blessing Igwechi, a Psychologist graduate of the University of Education, Winneba, Ghana. “That woman will always have it somewhere in her subconscious state that this country and its unorganized administrators killed her son. Such woman can do anything so long as it will aid her leave to the country. We’re actually far from real sanity when we don’t have the opportunity to view what a sane environment looks like,” she says.

It is a common sight in Nigeria to see open gutters on major roads. Quite a number of residents do not understand the rationale behind this.

Elizabeth Iheanacho, an Abuja based civil servant asked the following question: “Where in the constitution of Nigeria is it written that all gutters must be uncovered?”

An Engineer, George Igwagor, Director, Flooding and Erosion at the Edo State Ministry of Environment expatiates on the matter. “It is more expensive to construct and to maintain roads with covered gutters,” he explains.

“If it is covered, it becomes more difficult to clean. However the issues of flooding are more complicated than the debris blocking channels. The number of houses built as well as the locations can also be a major factor to flooding,” he explained.

A look around the city of Benin, confirmed this assertion as some houses have been built on portions where rain water are supposed to be channeled as a means of flood prevention. He went further to talk about the need for proper planning, environmental impact assessment followed by environmental audit. He said only the Federal Capital Territory has a proper arrangement on the aforementioned. However, the dangers of open gutters seem not to be going anywhere.

A former respondent, Elizabeth narrated her experience. “I was in Calabar some years back and went shopping in one of the upscale departmental stores. The gutter in front was so wide that it could have conveniently swallowed a car. There was the usual make-shift wood to cross the gutter and access the shop, however, the operators of the supermarket nonchalantly confirmed that children have been known to be swept off by the swirling water of the drain.”

In a response to the plight of children from low income households who are the likely victims as they mainly have to walk home from school during the rainy season, Engineer Wilson of the Edo State Ministry of Works says the government has limited resources and needs all the help they can get.

Habibatu

“In Lagos Street, the government has started work there. We have also worked extensively in the government Reservation Area, Sapele Road etc. Covering a gutter is more aesthetic but very difficult to maintain.  The former governor Adams Oshiomole started the covered slab project about five years ago but till date it has not been desilted.  The government cannot do everything. It has to be a combined effort,” he said.

Some residents are already responding to this call. They are doing their best in spite of the limitations to save the lives of school age children as they navigate their way in the rainy season.

Habibatu Abu is one such individual. The trader narrated the dangers that they face. “One day last week, it was raining so heavily a girl fell down there (pointing at a location) luckily she was helped up,” she said.

Habibatu and a few women have taken it upon themselves to tell children the safe areas they can pass along the Uselu Market axis during such heavy rains. It is indeed a laudable effort but for such a huge problem with potentially grave circumstances the government and people have to at least triple such efforts to prevent more needless deaths within the most vulnerable population group.

By Efe Alexandra Omordia

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