Lagos Floods: It is time for Governor Ambode to save his city from drowning

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A boy in Lagos flood

The recent July floods are the result of serious infrastructure problems that define the very existence of Lagos. Ambode must take important decisions to give the city a fighting chance.

Lagos has been facing floods for the past month.

After weeks of getting a sneak preview of what can happen when an overcrowded city fails to manage its drainage problems, residents of Lagos, from Surulere to Victoria Island, have gone through July with lakes where roads used to be, in some of the worst cases of flooding that the city has ever seen.

Most of the major roads around Lagos have suffered long pile-ups, regardless of the time of day.

They are largely a result of the rain; apart from the endless presence of large puddles of water on certain stretches of Ikorodu Road, parts of Osborne Road and Ozumba Mbadiwe and a large part of the Surulere/Yaba area, the erosion has created large craters in already weak roads, and they are getting larger.

 

Images posted on Twitter over the course of July have shown entire streets and roads filled with water up to waist level. Some guy kayaked through Ahmadu Bello Way, in what is supposed to be a financial district.

Water is a respecter of no persons.

As unexpected as it may seem, almost everyone who was in Lagos during the early days of the month, or at any other time before, could have seen this coming.

In recent times, the city has seen greater rainfall with each new season, and each year has come with forecasts that predict more rain than the last year.

Between June and July 2016 (usually the rainiest months of the year), Lagos took 762.63 mm of rain. Compare that with 2012, when just over 563mm of rain fell in those two months and you begin to get a better sense of the picture.

This year’s rains are only the next chapter in a progression that was bound to happen, thanks to perhaps the most important global factor of our time, climate change.

There was also a man-made element to the floods. This year, the Lagos State government has continued its program of ‘reclaiming’ land from the Atlantic.

In addition to the multi-million dollar Eko Atlantic City, new dredging work started this year along parts of Oniru and on the mainland end of the Third Mainland Bridge, near Oworonshoki.

Beyond displacing thousands of liters of sea water, these projects have also reduced the breadth of options available for rain water that would ordinarily be put into the Lagos Lagoon and eventually, the Atlantic.

On the other hand, there is the ever-present problem of clogged drainage channels on Lagos Island. Between indiscriminate waste disposal and the canals that can remain uncleared for months with next to no maintenance, there was hardly a clear path for floodwater to pass through.

When the factors are considered, nearly anyone could have seen last weekend’s floods coming.

But if any member of the state government did, you wouldn’t have known from the official reaction.

Days after the first episodes of flooding, in the first weeks of July, the Lagos State governor, Akinwunmi Ambode spoke of immediate steps to find a holistic solution to the problem of flooding in Lagos.

 

Speaking at the Water Technology and Environmental Control (WATEC) sensitization program in Lagos, he said: “We have witnessed our most prime estates flooded with water; we have seen our roads taken over by floods…

"These indeed are trying times for any government, especially our own administration, which has determinedly pursued massive infrastructural development, to improve standards of living of our citizenry,” Ambode said.

He then proceeded to draw attention to the floods that have troubled London this year, and similar cases in Japan, as proof that this is not a ‘Nigerian problem’.

No matter how well a society may be prepared, we can never rule out the element of the natural or if you like, the supernatural”, Ambode said.

London and Japan’s floods have claimed their place in the international news at different points in the last two weeks, for obvious reasons.

Yet, it is hard to see how they have affected the young family who had to make calls for help from their balcony because their entire ground floor was somewhere between flooded and submerged.

Passing responsibility to unseen forces is even lazier. What Ambode calls “… the role of the natural, or the supernatural, if you like” is when a city suffers an earthquake and tsunami in one week, not a mild episode of flooding that was not totally unexpected, by any stretch of the imagination.

Lagos needs, and deserves much more than such lazy grabbing at the air.

 

Too much of the sprawling economic and commercial hub bears the evidence of this sort of temporal, instant thinking. It is what has made it a city of the moment rather than the long term.

It is why, after years of being touted as the world’s next big megacity, the city’s 20 million people depend on an unholy mix of an inadequate transport system, almost non-existent public healthcare, a distinct absence of urban planning and weak institutions, struggling with the burden of their charge.

It is why, despite lying in the face of the Atlantic Ocean, Lagos does not have an emergency flood management system.

The problems that the city faces are not new or of the nature to be resolved with immediate steps like the governor suggested.

They are infrastructural, the result of years of erratic side-stepping, aggressive commercialization, and yet not enough fore-planning.

A survey of Lagos by a United Nations research team shortly after independence identified a range of serious problems including extreme congestion, extensive housing shortages, exorbitant rents, scarcity of housing finance, a rapid growth of slums and inadequate sanitation.

 

Why these problems have become more pronounced now is the introduction of today’s realities, the rapid forced urbanization of Lagos, decades of migration from other states and neighboring West African countries, and a subject of much-heated debate, global warming.

Lagos relies on a basic drainage system that is nowhere near capable of meeting the demands of a city of 20 million people on the edge of the Atlantic. It is a system that has been inadequate since the moment it came into being.

According to researchers, Babatunde Abraham Williams and Annmarie Hauck Walsh in their 1968 report/book, "Urban Government for Metropolitan Lagos", Lagos’ sewer and drainage system was terrible as far back as 30 years ago, "with the complete absence of any functional system at all". "

"The creation of a comprehensive underground sewage system had been proposed at various times since 1902 but with little impact". The most recent attempt, at the time, in 1956 had been abandoned "because of lack of capital combined with political chicanery on the part of an ‘anti-sewage’ clique on the Lagos Town Council who had business connections with night-soil collectors".

Today, the ‘drainage system’ is made up mostly of a loose network of sewers, canals and roadside gutters.

Many of these date back to two major time-periods; the 70s, during massive building projects laid by Jakande, and the 2000s, when then-governor Tinubu pushed a facelift of much of the city’s infrastructure.

The rest is mostly haphazard; Home and land owners, as well as local community bodies, are expected to ‘dig’ gutters where there are none, usually in new settlements like Ikorodu, Ajah extension etc.

The effect is that 40 years after Williams and Walsh compiled their research, Lagos still does not have an actual drainage system. There is no uniform, interconnected network of channels laid out according to a carefully considered plan.

The same can be said of much of the city itself. While it emerged as the commercial and economic nerve of the country, most of Lagos’ suburbs came into existence as mushroom communities, government residential areas or, more recently, hastily-built private estates.

The result is that the city is mostly a rag-tag collection of residential buildings, businesses, commercial hubs and everything else.

Lagos, in all truth, is really a city that just, happened.

The reasons are numerous.

For instance, according to American researchers, Mensch and Williams, in the mid-1960s, there were only 30 professional planners working in the whole of Nigeria; and in the immediate post-independence era, there was reportedly only one skilled engineer in charge of the Lagos’ entire water distribution system.

The evidence is there to see in suburbs like Yaba, where old, Victorian homes stand within inches of tall, 3–4 story concrete mammoths on streets where every building is within touching distance of the next one.

On streets like this, one long roadside gutter is supposed to carry the drainage from these many houses.

There is no urban planning, of the type that is necessary for the government to consider before thinking up a drainage system or rolling out immediate counter-measures in the case of emergency.

Donald Trump may disagree but the biggest threat to humanity in this century is climate change. Many experts put this year’s extreme weather down to the effects of global warming.

And as it continues to affect our lives to a greater degree, the implications of Lagos’ infrastructural problems become more prominent.

The responsibility then falls on the government and city planners to create the infrastructure that will make the city better prepared for extreme weather conditions.

But Lagos does not even have a plan.

Where then does the Lagos State government start? Is there any hope for a city whose very existence is built on a foundation that threatens its future?

There is much to do, admittedly. The state government seems bent on denying the depth of its problems and there are many reasons why it would make sense for them to do so.

As the world becomes more aware of the role that Lagos plays in the Nigerian economy as well as the many prospects available to be explored, investment has poured in, from private firms and companies like Huanchang Steel Construction and Sinotruk, and countries like the Netherlands, Norway, and China.

Most of these investors operate on certain false presumptions that are in stark contrast to the reality beyond Third Mainland Bridge and the glitzy boardrooms of Victoria Island, when it is dry.

 

Embarking on reforms of the scale that is needed, or even admitting and commenting on the extent of work that is needed would expose the soft underbelly of Lagos.

There’s also the chance, however unlikely, that the state government does not know the true extent of the problem.

It wouldn’t all too alarming; the near-absence of research, records, and statistics on matters relating to public life in Nigeria is well known, more so by the people who should be keeping them.

Ultimately, there is no place in the future for Lagos without the foundational reforms that are required to keep up with emerging trends and a local reality.

There are lessons to be learned in this case from another industrial, economically-vital port city; Rotterdam, a coastal city in the home of Arjen Robben and clogs, the Netherlands.

In the last four years, Rotterdam has become a choice destination for leaders and planners looking to learn, and borrow a leaf or two, from their approach to solving the problem of rising oceans and flooding, largely by the unusual efforts of a new agency, Room for the River.

About half of the industrial Dutch city is between 0 to 12 feet below sea level.

Theirs is a uniquely Dutch problem.

The country has been fighting back water for over a millennium, when farmers built the first walls and ridges, called dikes, to regulate the water level.

Windmills followed later, pumping water off the land; a few of them can still be seen scattered across the Dutch countryside.

Netherlands is the Niger Delta of Europe; it sits at the mouth of the North Sea, where the continent’s two major rivers empty themselves into the Atlantic. It is also one of the world’s most densely populated countries and about 60% of its land area is prone to flooding.

Rotterdam makes up a chunk of that 60%; yet the last episode of flooding there happened between 1993–1995. The people call it “the disaster”. Over 200,000 people had to be evacuated and thousands of animals were lost to the flood that covered large parts of the city and caused millions of euros worth of damage.

Since then, Rotterdam has developed a system based on living with the water, rather than fighting it. Making this work has been the sole responsibility of "Room for the River".

Since it was created in 2006, the agency has gone about spending its 2.2 billion dollar budget on giving the river more space to handle extra water by lowering floodplains, widening rivers and channels and moving families and communities from high-risk areas to higher ground.

Ahmed Abdoutaleb is a Moroccan-born Muslim who is the mayor of Rotterdam, and in his capacity, oversees the city’s reaction to the threat of flooding.

Rotterdam lies in the most vulnerable part of the Netherlands, both economically and geographically.”, he told the New York Times in June, “If the water comes in, from the rivers or the sea, we can evacuate maybe 15 out of 100 people. So evacuation isn’t an option. We can escape only into high buildings. We have no choice. We must learn to live with water.

The Irish government has already shown interest in building a similar system. Considering the massive gaps in infrastructure, Lagos may not be able to execute such a plan to the letter, but there is so much that can be learned.

In all fairness, recent weeks have shown that the problem of flooding is not one unique to Lagos.

The late-July rains have brought floods to Asaba, Port Harcourt, Suleja, Abeokuta, Sagamu and many other towns and cities around the country.

In truth, this is fast becoming a national issue, but there is a reason why the floods in Lagos came months before these singular instances in other states.

20 million people, rising ocean levels, a lack of urban planning and clogged drainage systems are the perfect recipe for a disaster of epic proportions.

 

The Lagos State government, in reaction to the flooding, has ordered owners of properties erected on drainage channels to evict these structures, as it will have no option than to demolish the buildings.

In a sense, clearing the path for water does offer a solution, but it is a temporary one that can only yield short-term results.

The Lagos State government will need to look beyond immediate response to create a far-reaching, long-term plan that will redefine the structure of Lagos, from basic elements like the distribution of markets to the more difficult like the demarcation of residential and commercial districts.

It would be suitably climactic to say Governor Ambode’s time starts now; but the reality is that the countdown started a long time ago.



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