West and Central Africa: flood alert confirmed

Published: 31 July 2008 0:00 CET

Moustapha Diallo, International Federation, Dakar

The rainy season has begun in many countries across West and Central Africa. In rural areas, farmers had already cleared and ploughed the fields a month earlier, waiting impatiently for this moment.

It is a moment of hope, but also one of apprehension, because most of these people depend on subsistence or rain-fed agriculture. Indeed, for the majority of farming populations in West and Central Africa, the rainy season constitutes their only chance to grow crops to feed their families and to meet their basic needs in lean seasons by selling surplus produce at market.

Last year, thousands of African farming families were unable to do this, because floods devastated their crops, destroyed or damaged their homes and swept away their food stores, leaving them totally destitute.

In urban and periurban areas, floods also wreaked havoc, claiming human lives, completely destroying or damaging houses and infrastructure and leaving thousands of people homeless.

In 2007, over 800,000 people in West and Central Africa were affected by flooding.

This year, floods are likely to sweep through the region’s countries with dramatic consequences, if the forecasts of abnormally heavy rains issued by the meteorological organizations that work in partnership with the International Federation are right.

“The 2008 season will be particularly rainy in the months of July, August and September, posing a potential flood risk in many countries in the region,” warned meteorological organizations in May.

These forecasts are now being confirmed by the spate of floods suffered by several West and Central African countries over the past few days.

In Niger, heavy rains lashed Zinder in the mid-eastern part of the country, destroying many houses and leaving hundreds of people homeless. They claimed at least six lives and caused considerable material damage. The Red Cross Society of Niger distributed ten tonnes of millet to the affected populations and mobilized volunteers to raise the awareness of 250 families now sheltered in schools about diarrhoealdiseases and malaria.

The torrential rains that pounded the plateau and coastal area of Togo in recent days caused considerable damage in the prefectures of Zio, Yoto, Vo and Golfe. Seven bridges on different main roads also collapsed, and villages and farmland in the Zio and Haho valleys were flooded. Togolese Red Cross volunteers were mobilized in the affected areas and took part in relief operations.

In Liberia, heavy rains affected thousands of people, forcing them to flee their homes, which were completely flooded, although the situation returned to normal when the waters retreated. However, eleven houses were destroyed, leaving 68 people homeless. The Liberian Red Cross Society distributed basic necessities to the most vulnerable.

In Benin, torrential rains destroyed houses and devastated crops in the commune of Ouinhi, which is in the department of Zou in the south of the country, leaving people in a critical situation. The bridge linking the locality to the rest of the country was swept away. Red Cross volunteers assisted those affected and assessed the damage and evaluated needs.

Floods were also reported in some parts of Senegal (Malem Hodar, in the centre of the country), Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire…

“Immediate action must be taken before the floods get worse and begin occurring in other countries. This will considerably reduce the impact that they could have on vulnerable communities,” stresses Jerry Niati, the disaster management delegate at the International Federation Zone Office for West and Central Africa in Dakar.

The International Federation launched a preliminary emergency appeal on 11 July for CHF 750,000 (EUR 460,000/USD 730,000) in order to help Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies prepare for the floods that are expected to hit West and Central African countries, according to the early warning given by weather forecasting organizations. This is one way in which scientific information can be effectively used to anticipate floods.

The aim is to develop Red Cross and Red Crescent National Society preparedness plans and purchase relief materials, food supplies and basic necessities to be stocked in Dakar (Senegal), Accra (Ghana) and Yaoundé (Cameroon), so that they can be rapidly transported to affected areas, providing assistance to around 48,000 people. The International Federation has released CHF 484,000 from its disaster relief emergency fund in order to launch the planned activities.

“Appeal coverage is low for the moment, which is regrettable, because floods pose a serious threat to thousands of families in the region. At a time when the prices of cereals and other food staples are rising, the effect on food security could also be disastrous,” laments Jerry Niati.