People in the developing world are four times as likely as people in the developed world to die in natural disasters, particularly floods. Rapid urbanization and systemic poverty exacerbate not only the plight of flood victims, but flooding conditions as well, according to a new report from the group Action-aid International.
“Flooding in urban areas is not just related to heavy rainfall and extreme climatic events; it is also related to changes in built-up areas themselves,” according to the report. “Urbanization aggravates flooding by restricting where flood waters can go, by covering large parts of the ground with roofs, roads, and pavements, by obstructing sections of natural channels, and by building drains that ensure that water moves to rivers more rapidly than it did under natural conditions.”
Most people view flooding as an unpreventable natural disaster. But Actionaid identifies four types of floods that are caused by, or made dangerous because of, human activity and building patterns:
* Localized flooding due to inadequate drainage.
* Flooding from small streams whose catchment areas lie within built-up areas.
* Flooding from major rivers affecting riverbank settlements too close to the water.
* Coastal flooding influenced by riverflows from inland, wetland and mangrove removal, and, potentially, rising sea levels.
The structures in many slum areas are particularly vulnerable because they are often temporary and built by hand. Drainage systems are often blocked by debris and waste, as garbage collection and sanitation in these areas is often inadequate or nonexistent. Most importantly, flooding that results in injury directly deprives many poor people of their main asset-their own labor.
Economists generally perceive urbanization as a positive trend. In the West, mass migration away from farms into cities enabled the Industrial Revolution. However, many demographers contend that rapid urbanization-wherein masses of people move to cities before sufficient infrastructure exists to deal with them-can have a negative economic impact and can make transitional communities more susceptible to loss due to natural disasters. In the case of Africa, much urbanization is driven not by opportunity seekers but by “environmental refugees” fleeing worsening drought conditions brought on by climate change.
By the year 2030, the majority of Africa’s population will live in an urban area, according to the report. If, by the year 2080, the mean global sea-level rises by 38 cm (as the Intergovernmental Committee on Climate Change has modeled) then the number of Africans affected by flooding will increase from 1 million to 70 million; the city of Banjul, the capital of Gambia, could totally disappear.
Actionaid proposes a number of strategies to help poor communities avoid flood loss and injury. While these recommendations are location specific, some common themes emerge:
* Halt the reclamation of wetlands by both commercial and industrial interests. Construction in wetlands areas blocks natural drainage systems, greatly disadvantaging the poor through flooding.
* Relocate (through assistance) slum dwellers along riverbanks to higher ground. Consider flood protection in terms of the entire river basin in question, even if it extends beyond national boundaries.
* Ensure that people, particularly the poor, are able to participate in the crafting of flood-reduction policies on the local level.
* Compel landlords to offer basic sanitation services.
* Appreciate that issues of day-today survivability often trump long-term environmental concerns for the world’s poorest people, which can result in the unwise exploitation of resources to meet an immediate need. Improving living conditions and security among the poor thus contributes to sustainability.
* Understand that climate change will exacerbate flooding conditions, particularly in coastal regions.
“The solutions to the severe flooding of poor urban communities in Africa are relatively simple. Many people understand what needs to be done. Communities can do much for themselves. However, the tasks are best tackled through partnerships with national and international sup-port,” the report concludes.
Voices from the Flood Zone
As part of its “Unjust Waters” report, Actionaid International interviewed people across the African continent about their experiences with flooding. Here are some of their responses.
“When we see very dark clouds up the hills, we expect heavy rains to come. So we get ourselves prepared by transferring our valuable things on our very high beds, which are reached by climbing ladders. Also children who sleep on the floor are transferred to the high beds.” (a woman in Freetown, Sierra Leone)
“When the rain and the floods come, women and children suffer. You can be locked up for up to two days with the flood. Sometimes we take our children out from the room to the rooftop. Then people bring boats to evacuate people.” (a flood victim in Alajo, Nairobi)
“We are not included in decision making processes. . . . If we were, we could form residents’ associations to improve our own welfare and response to emergencies. We can partner with City Corpo-rat ion of Nairobi to plant trees along the riverbank, dig canals, trenches, and drainage next to our houses.” (a resident in Maba-tini, Nairobi)
Source: “Unjust Waters,” Actionaid International.
Originally published in THE FUTURIST, July-August 2007.