Aside from the long lines of backed-up traffic it drew across the Ikoyi and Lekki corridors, Saturday’s flood in Lagos also drew attention to several problems with the state.
How much of the unusually heavy precipitation in the week to the flooding was the result of a warming world? Now, this matters a lot if we are to agree the design of policy responses to the threat of future flooding — that is, other than continue with the far easier expedient of issuing flood warnings. In parts (Ikeja and areas north of it) Lagos is estimated to comprise locations about 2 metres above sea level. Amuwo-Odofin, Apapa, Badagry, Epe, Eti-Osa, Ibeju-Lekki, Ikorodu, Kosofe, Lagos Island, and Ojo, on the other hand, are “at or below sea level”. Over the next 100 years, if the world continues to warm at today’s rates, sea levels are expected to rise by more than two metres. In other words, all of Lagos will be submerged by 2100. Before then, however, a one metre rise over the next five decades might have put paid to lower lying regions.
Inevitably, much of the conversation around the flooding over the weekend focussed on how to mitigate the problem. Just about everywhere, litter and blocked drains took centre stage. On this reckoning, poor hygiene is complicit in worsening the conditions that make flooding inevitable. More sewerage. Less clutter. And presto, the floods should abate. However, a trip to the Marina in pelting rain raises questions around how superficial a response to the flood problem this focus on drains might be.
Just after the World Bank-assisted rehabilitation of the inner Marina and its adjoining roads, nothing intrigued me more than to stand by the manholes and watch water well up out of them unto the roads as the rain fell. Obviously, the lagoon was trying to pass on some of its additional burden unto the Marina. This danger of a back-wash is one reason why drainage in low-lying regions may not empty into lagoons or large bodies of water on the same level with the land.
Thus, beyond curbing litter and blocked drains, a larger challenge to Lagos’ low-lying status and the threats posed by flooding as a result should have us look at the management of our wetlands. These are bogs largely, with brackish water, and elsewhere, support a wide range of plant and wildlife. In parts of the world they have been protected as sanctuaries for migratory birds. In Asia, as nesting places for the endangered Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin. Wetlands are also very important for flood control. By absorbing additional flows of water they help smoothen the effects of severe precipitation.
Unfortunately, once successive governments in Lagos State persuaded themselves that “land” is the state’s own “crude oil”, they have approached its management with the same reckless abandon that Nigeria has the exploration and production of crude oil. Wetlands are not to be studied to understand what flora and fauna these unique ecosystems support, how they interact with adjoining communities, and what role they play in managing water flows across the state. No! they are to be reclaimed. And built up. In the understanding that wealth will flow to both government and some people from this activity. The wetlands around Oworonshoki are currently the latest victim of this pathology.
We may not care what happens to the plant and animal species that we thus displace by the reclamations. But we should worry what happens to the bodies of water that it displaces. And to the flow that would ordinarily have headed to such places when the rains fall too heavily.
Should we worry, too, about our building habits? The tendency in the state is to pave over the land once livable structures have been constructed, ensuring that when it rains, rather than some of it seeping into the soil where the rain fell, the larger portion of it heads for non-available sewers. Because the central business district around the Marina is some of the most paved-up space in Lagos, and because it kind of slopes towards the lagoon, this problem with run-offs is spectacular there.
Could we compel property developers and landlords to keep portions of their land devoted to gardens? So that not all rains that fall in Lagos go in search of drainages? It is possible. But much more detailed studies of the problem have got to be conducted.
It is not enough for us to argue, as a few fringe voices did last Saturday, that even Japan suffers from severe flooding. The old Dutch saw, “While God created the Earth, the Dutch created the Netherlands” makes sense only when we realise how the Netherlands has used an elaborate system of dikes and polders to make their low-lying country less flood prone.