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Accra seasonal flood ‘festival’: are we learning from the past?

Updated: Nov 8, 2022

As the atmosphere darkens, the inhabitants of Accra gaze upon the Colombo nimbus cloud on a typical rainy day in June, then comes a drizzle and then heavy rainfall. Fear grips many people while others begin to seek protection for their belongings on higher elevations. Yet still, others quickly escape their homes to seek refuge. Whereas high-income households make ready their water pumping machines, low-income households gather their buckets ready to fetch flood waters from their homes: We wait! We experience! We respond! We blame! We wait again for the next rainy season! This has been the usual cycle of seasonal flooding in some parts of Ghana’s capital city for several years. The big question remains: Why has this cycle persisted for so long? and why are lessons not learned from past experiences? Or have the residents of those areas accepted their fate? On social media, seasonal floods in Accra is jokingly referred to us ‘Accra flood festival’.

The situation

Accra is the capital city of Ghana located by the coast of Ghana.It is the largest city in Ghana with a population of over 2 million people. It is the most vulnerable city in Ghana to the event of flooding due to its closeness to the coast and population density. Moreover, unplanned squatters, kiosks, and container homes (which are typical of densely populated urban regions) have aggravated drainage issues in Accra. In recent years, haphazard planning and development within the metropolis have exacerbated the city’s vulnerability to disasters such as flooding and fires. Accra’s susceptibility to flooding is however not only driven by human-induced factors like rapid urbanization and growth of informal settlements, and its associated challenges such as poor waste management and drainage system, and urban governance but also climate variability and climate change. To worsen the plight, the indiscriminate destruction of Accra’s green and blue spaces contributes significantly to the present perennial flooding. Across the city, disaster-vulnerable areas are usually dominated by low-income households who have limited adaptive capacity. The sprouting of unplanned settlements in Accra is mainly because town and city planning authorities and other associated stakeholders have not been active in enforcing laws and ensuring that unauthorized settlements and structures are removed to prevent the occurrence of floods. While flood occurrence in Accra is a seasonal event, few proactive measures have been put in place both by residents and government institutions to curb this issue.

Whose responsibility? – The Blame

While government authorities have been reluctant in coming to the aid of flood victims, particularly those in unauthorized settlements, it is worth considering that activities of informal settlements influence formal settlements and this requires action through stakeholder engagement and collaboration. Thus, good governance is a very key element in resolving this challenge .

Figure 1 Flooded homes

Governance in disaster risk management is a multi-stakeholder concern and requires collaboration and commitment of all stakeholders to achieve disaster resilience. However, this does not seem to be the case with flooding in Accra, particularly in unauthorized settlements. In a typical flooding situation, while government institutions blame unauthorized settlement for obstructing waterways and interrupting the hydrologic system, inhabitants of flood-prone communities blame the government for slow or no response to flood concerns. Additionally, although climate change is a driver of intense and erratic rainfall patterns contributing to the flood situation, poor urban planning and unsustainable environmental behavior have both contributed greatly to the challenge in Accra. Furthermore, whereas community residents express concerns about chocked gutter and poor or no drainage systems, city authorities complain about how residents dump waste which blocks the flow of water resulting in floods. This blame cycle results in little or no action to solve the challenge as there is no one to hold responsible for this menace. In other words, governance of disaster risk management in Ghana’s capital is a big challenge that demands urgent attention.

The adaptive strategy - Innovatively or rudimentary?

Although some flood preventive measures have been effective in enabling households to adapt to flooding, most respondents particularly in high flood-prone areas expressed that flood preventive measures at the household level have not been very effective in reducing the impacts of floods. Existing flood preventive techniques at the household level include floodwalls, elevating floor levels, reinforced walls, ditches, cleaning drains, boring holes in walls, covered gutters to prevent solid waste disposal, etc. Yet still, some households do not have any flood prevention measures for fear it would not make much difference because of the severity of the flood in such areas. Thus, few households had robust flood preventive measures to tackle this menace, making most households particularly vulnerable to flooding. On the other hand, efforts by city authorities to reduce the occurrence of flooding in these communities have not been robust and innovative to sustainably tackle this problem. However, based on our study, most respondents proposed that floods can be prevented by constructing more drainages and enforcing laws to prevent people from constructing in waterways and deposing rubbish in drainages in addition to increasing green spaces in the communities for flood prevention.

Figure 2 Re-enforced walls around a building in Ashaley Botwe

To conclude, the issue of flooding in Accra has been very challenging both for the residents of flood-prone communities and government authorities. It is a very complex problem embedded in issues of poverty, survival, heritage, attitude, and politics coupled with the blame game cycle and the nonchalant attitude of city authorities to sustainably address the challenge. In summary, flood occurrence in Ghana’s capital requires innovative and robust solutions which involve all stakeholders actively collaborating in playing their specific roles. Lessons need to be learned from past experiences to make way for future solutions. A more anticipatory approach that acts promptly to stop the flood before it occurs is imperative in finding solutions to Accra’s seasonal flooding. Thus, instead of the usual “We wait! We experience! We respond! We blame! We wait again for the next rainy season!”, the narrative should rather be We experienced! We anticipated! We collaborated! We employed innovative mechanisms! We solved!

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