Seasonal rains, seasonal misery

Across West Africa residents are crossing streets in canoes, carrying babies overhead in suitcases and navigating waist-high water to find shelter. 

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This rainy season as of 27 August at least 37 people are dead from flooding across West and parts of Central Africa, more than 20,000 displaced living in shelters or with relatives and some 3,600 families homeless, according to the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) West and Central Africa office.

The figures change daily as heavy rains continue. Two children were reported drowned in Mauritania from 28 to 29 August flooding that affected some 3,500 families, according to local authorities.

“I don’t even know what to say,” a woman in the Coronthie neighbourhood of the Guinea capital Conakry told IRIN on 28 August, a day after the area flooded. “We are trapped by water.”

Mohamed Diaby, 19, of Coronthie said: “We put my brother’s nine-month-old twins in a suitcase to bring them to a safer area. That was something you saw all over the neighbourhood.”

He said people were in tears as sacks of rice lay saturated in some homes. A 50-kilogram sack of rice generally costs 160.000 Guinean francs (US$32) – about half of some civil servants’ monthly pay. Prices commonly rise during Ramadan, the Muslim month of dawn-to-dusk fasting, which much of the region’s population is observing.

Photo: Nancy Palus/IRIN
Residents of Dakar's Pikine neighbourhood pour water from their flooded home into a makeshift drainage system


IFRC, which is working with governments and local volunteers to provide emergency aid to stricken families, said in a 28 August statement that the agency must urgently restock relief supplies to face needs in the region. Red Cross volunteers are distributing mosquito nets, tarpaulins, jerry cans, blankets, water purification tablets and soap.

The Federation on 10 August launched an appeal to help 25,000 people in 16 West African countries better prepare for floods.

Emergency relief is just one part of the answer to the annual flood damage, said Youcef Ait-Chellouche, disaster response coordinator for IFRC West and Central Africa. As with every year, many of the flooded areas are wetlands zones, where people settled during decades of drought, but where – with the resumption of normal rainfall in the 1990s – the ground is again saturated.

In the Pikine department of the Senegalese capital Dakar – once a swamp – as years pass, entire homes have been abandoned to the water. “We have not used these areas for several years,” said one woman, pointing to three rooms under about 10cm of water. In the same courtyard, another woman sopped up water from her bedroom, where furniture is propped up on bricks.

“In some areas flooding can be mitigated and the impact reduced significantly,” IFRC’s Ait-Chellouche said. “But in other urban areas…construction has taken place in known flood areas. This kind of urban extension has to be considered in a development framework.”

He said considerable investment by the government is needed to avoid flood disasters.

Photo: Nancy Palus/IRIN
A boy in Pikine, standing near homes long ago abandoned because of floods


Residents across the region are also demanding action from their governments. In recent days prime ministers, mayors and junta leaders have visited flood-affected areas and promised help.

“If they do not come through we will be in the streets again,” Diaby in Coronthie told IRIN. He was among at least 100 youths who on 27 August blocked traffic, burned tyres and marched to the presidential palace demanding the authorities act to prevent communities from being submerged. Junta leader Moussa Dadis Camara visited affected families in Coronthie hours after the demonstrations.

In Pikine traffic on a main road was blocked for hours on 30 August as youths burned tyres, protesting what they called negligence on the part of the government.

Senegalese Prime Minister Souleymane Ndéné Ndiaye visited some affected areas on 27 August, announcing that the government was activating its national emergency response plan, putting $4.3 million toward relief and mitigation efforts.

The Senegalese government has helped families relocate from flood zones as part of a programme launched after severe flooding in 2005.

In the Chad capital N’djamena, homes have crumbled in recent days as 100mm of rainfall fell within hours, leaving neighbourhoods inundated despite recently installed gutters and pump stations. “This exceptionally heavy rain allows us to draw lessons, to test what has already been put in place and see what is not working”, Prime Minister Youssouf Saleh Abbas declared on state media after a 28 August visit to affected areas.

Health experts point out that the danger to flooded communities is not over once the rains stop, as ensuing conditions can trigger malaria, cholera and diarrhoeal disease. “In flooding situations like this hygiene degrades rapidly,” Racine Kane, water and sanitation expert with the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Senegal, told IRIN.

In Senegal UNICEF is supporting an awareness campaign including radio spots, home visits and other activities to educate about prevention of waterborne diseases, as well as supporting the Health Ministry in anti-cholera efforts, Kane said.

In Pikine a young girl shouted repeatedly to IRIN: “We do not sleep well at all.” Another girl nearby said: “Too many mosquitoes,” and pointed to tiny bumps all over her arm.