Lessons from Freetown and Congo landslides -By Greg Odogwu

Filed under: Global Issues |

 

Africa has never had it so bad from landslides and mudslides. The tragedies of the past week in Freetown and Ituri dwarfed all the tragic tales we have been hearing from Nigeria this rainy season; and pushed every other environmental emergency into insignificance.

What could be worse than waking up to see that one’s street is deluged with muddy water, too thick to have any property rescued, and too fast to be waded? Then, what could be more traumatising than suddenly realising that even the precarious situation of a high-current muddy flood is nothing compared to the catastrophe upstream? The earthy water is in fact the cascade from overnight mass graves of compatriots who are less lucky than the citizens down the muddy patch.

It is really the worst of times for the people of Sierra Leone, who are still counting their dead from the mudslide that buried hundreds of their compatriots overnight; and the people of the Democratic Republic of Congo, whose fishing village in Lake Albert was pummelled by landslide, killing more than 200.

Nevertheless, this is not just time to mourn. It is a time to be sober, because the truth is that many parts of West and Central Africa are vulnerable to landslides, as huge portions of our land are heavily deforested while communities are still crowded into the steep hillsides. We have territories, even here in Nigeria, where logging have been going on for decades and we all have forgotten the importance of trees to soil structure stability.

Truth is, we did not have real cause to notice our unstable locations because the rains had never been as bad as they are this year. And, who is to blame for the change in tide? Climate change!

Let us take the Sierra Leone situation as a case study. This year is on record as a particularly wet one. The country has been witnessing abnormally continuous rains since July. According to expert analyses, this 2017, Freetown got three times the area’s seasonal average for rain – 41 inches of rainfall. Also worthy of note is that the capital city, Freetown, is below sea level; and also has poor infrastructure and a poor drainage system.

Sadly, a particularly report stated that the Sierra Leonean meteorological department did not issue any warning to hasten the evacuation of its citizens in the endangered zone. This is considering the fact that in 2015, floods killed 10 people and left 1000 homeless in the same region.

It was in that same 2015 that a representative of the Sierra Leone Environment Protection Agency Climate Change Secretariat, Mohamed Bah, gave an ominous interview to the a local paper, Standard Times Press, warning of events like the slide we just witnessed in Freetown.

“Irresponsible actions taken on the hills will affect the city greatly,” Bah said of the deforestation taking place on hilltops.

The government official was warning of the removal of mangroves in the city natural landscape, which was likely to contribute to future flooding and mudslides.

According to the eco-watchdog group Global Forest Watch, Sierra Leone has lost nearly 800,000 hectares of forest cover in the past 10 years, with loss accelerating with each passing year. The civil war that took place from 1991 to 2002 is also a studied cause of the deforestation.

Anyway, this is a general problem in forest-rich Africa. Just last year, a professor of Forest Economics at the University of Ibadan, Labode Popoola, said available statistics showed that Nigeria loses 400, 000 hectares of forest every year. We are rated as losing our forest cover, faster than any other African country.

Perhaps, the government and the people still do not get the danger we face. Unregulated cutting down of trees is very dangerous. Tree roots are stabilising factors in unstable topographies, and sites that have experienced serious weathering and surface runoff. When these trees are indiscriminately taken out, and never replanted, our villages on hillsides and elevated habitats are left wide open without slope stability. And, when the rains are pounding without relenting, anything can happen.

Today, the extreme weather conditions we are now familiar with, have taken a form of prophetic dread. What scientists and environmental activists warned decades ago, are gradually materialising before us.

The dreadful aspect of any prophecy of doom is not only in its fulfilment; it is more in the prophecy itself. I believe this reality informed the famous Shakespearean quote, “A coward dies a thousand times before his death, but the valiant taste of death but once.” A prophecy of doom is deadly, and can kill the spirit of its object with savage strokes delivered through the auditory nerves.

But the irony is that there is an easy “anti-missile system” to block these “prophetic weapons”. It is called denial. Psychologists describe denial as the refusal to accept reality or fact, acting as if a painful event, thought or feeling did not exist. It is considered as of the most primitive of the defence mechanisms. In its full form, it is totally subconscious, and sufferers may be as mystified by the behaviour of people around them as those people are by the behavior of the sufferers. It may also have a significant conscious element, where the sufferer is simply “turning a blind eye” to an uncomfortable situation.

Bearing in mind the psychological importance of denial, one then easily understands why former American Vice President Al Gore, a believer in the reality of climate change, titled his award winning eco-documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth”. The message is simple. The world is warming; and the climate is changing, but the catastrophic vista this situation portends is as bad as a prophecy of doom. And, true to our atavistic conditioning, it is easier to fight this truth.

So, one may ask, is the world in denial? The danger of denial is that when payday comes, the price is multiplied. The same government of Sierra Leone that hesitated in relocating its citizens from danger zones is now forced to relocate more than 10,000 citizens in one fell swoop. Of course, it would have cost them much less to do it when the rain had not come; the same for the people being relocated.

It is instructive that climate change deniers are actually depicted, just as they are called, by the word “denial”. Today, President Donald Trump of America has chosen to lead the pack. It is one of the tricks of nature that he may not be there tomorrow to see the price of his denial, when the day of reckoning comes.

However, climate change denial is not only when one takes the microphone to assert that global warming is a Chinese contraption. Any leader, who cannot appropriate funds meant for the environment for what it is meant for, is a denier too. Those office holders that wait to use the ecological funds to furnish government house and buy official cars, are also climate change deniers, worse than Trump. Office holders and civil servants who sit and wait for erosions to get out of hand so as to apply for “huge budget” for remediation purposes, are all climate change deniers, because if they had contributed their quota at an earlier stage, huge disasters would be prevented.

 

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