‘Twin disaster’ and the politics of blaming in Accra floods

The Kwame Nkrumah Circle in Accra (Ghana), short Circle, is a major junction of trotro (local buses) routes across the city and beyond. Here a heterogeneous crowd of street vendors, trotro passengers, business men and women come across each other, meet and trade all kind of goods. At the centre of it is a maze of stalls where household goods, shoes, clothes, DVDs, cosmetics, and what not are sold. Petty traders balance huge baskets filled with ready-to-it food, kerchiefs and drinks between the buses that are waiting to fill up. Self-proclaimed priests climb buses to spread the gospel while passengers are waiting for departure. Circle is also the place to go in Accra to buy electronics (if you don’t want to go to the very expensive shops in the malls further away from the city centre). It is where one of the few multiple-storey buildings in Accra is located (the GCB tower, home to Ghana’s largest bank). Business lunches are held in air conditioned restaurants near the stopping point of shared taxis to the ‘Ministries’, where governmental agencies are located. At the end of Ring Road with its fancy clubs and wide lanes it is a major entry point to central Accra, rushed through by SUVs at night and almost invariably stuck with traffic at day. Lately engineers, construction workers and their machines have added to the buzz of the place as the intersection has been undergoing major redesign including a flyover to relief the traffic.

Circle also sits on the Odaw River, the major channel for storm water drainage in Accra. The channel is narrow, often filled with sediment and debris. Whenever the tropical rains of the rainy season set in, streets are flooded within few hours. In such event shop-owners lose goods, structures are damaged, sometimes cars washed away. The aftermaths include malaria and cholera outbreaks as standing water spurs mosquito breeding and hygienic conditions are difficult to maintain with dirty water flooding the streets.

The disaster on Wednesday June 3 however is unprecedented. After 6 hours of torrential rainfall, Circle was once again under water. Traders, passengers and cars were unable to stay on the market or on the road and reportedly sought refuge under one of the few solid roofs in the area – that of the Goil fuel station. The electricity went off, a generator was started to bring light, a spark came in contact with fuel that had spread in the floodwaters – so it was established few days later – and set the station in flames. The explosion cost an estimated number of 152 people’s lives. Bodies were burnt beyond recognition. Over 8000 people have been displaced by the floods, many of whom are now homeless and in urgent need of water and food. The city is in shock, the Nation in mourning, and Circle has become another place as a new, sad meaning is attached to it.

The sad event of last June has stirred a hornet’s nest: Representatives of the local government blame street vendors and settlers for blocking waterways. Agencies blame local government for not enforcing plans and laws. Experts blame engineers. Residents blame government for not preventing floods and for not delivering emergency aid. Ghanaians are blamed for their ‘attitude’ of dumping waste into gutters. This blaming-each-other is not new, it repeats itself every year between June and August when the heavy rains hit the city. Indeed, flooding in Accra is a perennial issue, widely reported on in the local media year in year out.

The same pattern of blaming is reflected in the reporting of the June 3 events which has spread beyond local news:

  • According to a former Mayor of Accra, “the public must (…) be blamed for littering indiscriminately”, and the local authority AMA is “complicit” in causing floods, by issuing permits for buildings on waterways (Daily Guide 09.06.2015). This view is contested as the “the tendency to always blame attitudinal behavior of Ghanaians for the floods provides a cheap escape for those whose responsibility it is to ensure that floods do not happen and even if they do its impact would not be as disastrous as what happened on Wednesday night“ (myjoyonline.com 06.06.2015) The city authorities are undertaking huge demolitions as “the president has vowed to take tough measures to stop people building illegally on stream beds during the dry months” one day after the disaster event (BBC 05.06.2015). This started a debate over whom to blame in social media and the legitimacy of demolitions.
  • Reportedly, Ghanaians are frustrated with the government that “has done too little to fix the longstanding conditions that led to city-wide flooding after heavy rains, which in turn meant so many people were taking shelter at the Goil gas station at Kwame Nkrumah Circle“ (Quartz Africa 08.06.2015). This is also evident in a pressure groups’ blaming of President John Mahama’s administration for the recent floods, mainly because 2 1/2 years after a 663 m US$ project for the improvement of sanitation and storm water drainage in Accra was launched, funds have not been released and there is no sign of the project being implemented (com 10.06.2015; Daily Guide 12.06.2015). Accordingly, the government is being blamed for not showing adequate commitment, and the Mayor is being pressured to resign (myjoyonline.com 08.06.2015; Daily Guide 08.06.2015). “Rituals” of politicians visiting scenes are considered dispensable and not helpful in restoring trust (Daily Guide 08.06.2015)
  • Further mutual blaming among professionals is targeted at “lazy” engineers and planning agencies (Daily Guide 09.06.2015).
  • Responding to announced spillage of the Weija Dam, residents of the Densu Delta accuse GWCL of exposing them to floods while GWCL blames them for building on waterways.

While the bouncing of responsibilities is not exceptional in aftermaths of disasters, discussions and decision-making on flood risk reduction in Accra seems to be particulary focused on ‘politics of blaming’. What is behind the mutual blaming of authorities and citizens? Parallels can be found in the framing of cholera outbreaks and sanitation last year that led to the – ineffective – ‘Sanitation Day’, a mandatory public clean up exercise. How does the blaming help to fix the problem of perennial flooding? Who is being accused of what? Often general references such as ‘the public’, ‘government’ don’t differentiate the different stakes and capacities people and representatives have in dealing with floods in Accra. Instead the bouncing of responsibilities seem to serve to hide underlying problems linked to the flood disaster that are – so it seems – currently not being tackled thus creating a ‘politics of blaming’. We want to point out two of them here (surely others can be thought of).

Firstly, the sole focus in the blaming illustrated above is on who causes floods in Accra. They therein gloss over the fact that impacts are so devastating because it is not merely the floods that have led to the catastrophe, but the interaction of multiple risks and hazards: The loss of shelter, access to water and electricity, and flood and fire disasters are all intrinsically linked. The June 3 event is referred to as a ‘twin’ disaster of flood and fire/explosion. Yet as the account of events shows they cannot be separated; the explosion would not have occurred had there been no flooding (and consequently no spreading of fuel in waters). At the same time the floods led to an explosion also because the fragile electricity system needs to be switched off any time a flooding occurs in order to prevent shortcuts – hence the necessity for a generator. The outcome would also not have been as detrimental had there been a more adequate shelter or simple roofing available to passengers and vendors. In fact, the dangerous location of fuel stations in Accra has been the concern of sub-metropolitan councils for a while as I learned at an AMA committee meeting in May 2014. In Mallam a petrol station has been blocking the waterway and causing floods for years. Some of these stations have now finally been closed down.

The floods are also reported to threaten water supply in Accra and to cause water insecurity among victims. Again, this is not only an impact from flooding, it is also caused by an instable water distribution system, and the shortage of clean water is a particular risk factor in the absence of basic sanitation.

The June 3 event thus showcases how different risks Accra residents are exposed to reproduce each other.

Risks are not only reproduced because hazards interact, but also because vulnerabilities are reproduced. Flood victims report not to have seen any of the promised assistance three days after the disaster and suspect “that those who are not victims receive relief items” (Graphic Online 08.06.2015). Such accusations are linked to a fundamental fear of not being able to recover. As property insurance barely exists those who have lost goods or homes to the floods are at serious risk from falling into the poverty trap. Victims of the blast include mothers and family heads who leave their families now particularly vulnerable to further loss and health risks. Under such circumstances post-flood outbreaks of malaria, cholera and water shortage are much more serious than they would be without flood-related losses. A one-time event of six hours can create lifetime poverty and enhanced vulnerability. An estimated number of 8000 people is directly affected by the June 3 floods in Accra and is now facing a downward spiral of vulnerability in one way or the other. A much larger number of people has been rendered homeless in the ongoing demolitions, and is now facing serious threats from further seasonal rainfalls.

Secondly, as much as Accra and Ghana are in shock, flood risk in Accra is extremely local. The list of places flooded or expected to be flooded is always the same. Would they be shown on a map, they would form a pattern that overlaps with that of aggregate poverty in Accra. Circle remains an exception as it is not one of the most impoverished areas in Accra. However as a standstill of any activities is an accepted practice during extreme rainfall in Accra, those most likely to be on the market after 6 hours of heavy rain are (homeless) street vendors, trotro drivers and small shop-owners. Where are the people for whom flooding is a life-threatening event? As simple as it is, this question is rarely addressed in media reports and apparently poorly embraced in disaster prevention.

Only by glossing over the place-specific and reproduced nature of vulnerability to flood risk can demolition exercises be justified. The director of the Ghana Institute of Planners stated that “demolition exercises must be well planned” (myjoyonline.com, 09.06.2015), without (here) further classifying in what ways. The events of the last 3 weeks have once again demonstrated that ad-hoc demolition of any structure that doesn’t comply with formal regulations does more harm than good. Enhanced vulnerability to the next flood event – particularly among those displaced – and erosion of public trust in authorities’ risk reduction measures are among the consequences. The escalating fight over the legitimacy of demolition moreover distracts from identifying and addressing the underlying causes of vulnerability to flood risk in Accra.

Urban planning has much more potential than to restrict development to specific areas that are considered to be safe. Nevertheless several questions arise: Which risks affect which people? What are the inequalities that shape adaptive capacities? Why is it that previous plans have not been enforced? If such questions would be addressed in urban (DRR) planning, this could be a first step in overcoming the ‘politics of blaming’, and towards the creation of a safe urban environment for all.

 

Fanny Frick comments on the recent flood events. Her PhD research is looking at flood risk and adaptation in Accra where she spent 4 months doing field work in 2014. Fanny is a joint PhD student between King’s College London and the Humboldt University of Berlin in Germany working with supervisors Mark Pelling and Frances Cleaver in King’s Water and Antje Bruns at Humboldt University. She wrote this blogpost together with Rossella Alba, a doctoral researcher at the WaterPower project.

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