Saturday, 9th December 2023

Unnatural disasters

By Kiikpoye K. Aaron
25 July 2023   |   3:00 am
Quite often, disasters such as floods, earthquakes, cyclones, hurricanes, droughts etc are characterised as natural disasters. This is because they are triggered by the forces of nature, over which the conventional wisdom holds that man has no control. For the most part, natural disasters leave in their trails, phenomenal devastation on lives, livelihood and the environment.

A woman carries her child as they make their way pass collapsed homes in the village of Sugar on Indonesia’s Lombok island after a series of earthquakes were recorded by seismologists throughout<br />/ AFP PHOTO / str

Quite often, disasters such as floods, earthquakes, cyclones, hurricanes, droughts etc are characterised as natural disasters. This is because they are triggered by the forces of nature, over which the conventional wisdom holds that man has no control. For the most part, natural disasters leave in their trails, phenomenal devastation on lives, livelihood and the environment.

Mainly because they are triggered by the forces of nature, humans are hardly held to account for the damages. Even in contract law, natural disasters are seen as Acts of God and are found under Force Majeure clauses which provide convenient escape routes for non-performance of contractual responsibilities.

Given the ability to predict the outcomes of natural disasters with mathematical exactitude made possible by advances in science and technology, might it be right to blame nature if we fail to take positive action to prevent or mitigate the consequences of natural disasters as we often do in Nigeria?

In the light of the devastating effects of the 2022 flood disaster in Nigeria, which could have been prevented or mitigated with appropriate policy response, and the apparent helplessness of the government to handle the coming 2023 flood disaster, I argue that when a disaster occurs with every element of regularity and mathematical predictability, it loses its naturalness and should therefore, no longer be seen as a natural disaster. More appropriately, it should be seen as unnatural, manmade or governance disaster.

When we disrobe these disasters of their toga of ‘naturalness’, a number of things result at once. First, we are spared of the seeming helplessness of government officials to take action in preventing or mitigating the pains and sorrows that are the direct concomitants of disasters.

Second, society is well able to hold people or appropriate government agency liable for failing to do the right thing. Holding people to account may take a variety of forms, ranging from litigation, protest, naming and shaming and in a democratic environment where votes count, outright voting a government out of office for failing to save the nation of disaster.

Third, we absolve God or nature from blame for what is within the power of man to avert. This is imperative for two reasons. The first is that much of what finds manifestation today as natural disasters is a product of accumulation of abuse of nature by man. Blaming nature, therefore amounts to very much like blaming the victim. The second is that we are more likely to focus attention on sensible solutions rather than toeing the path of least resistance of praying as a disaster risk management strategy.

Driving through the East/West road from Port Harcourt to Delta State, particularly on the communities and parts of the road highly impacted by the 2022 flood, what is apparent even for the blind to see is that recovery has been slow and post-disaster risk management weak or non-existent.

The broken down portions of the East/West road, about the only major access route in and out of the Niger Delta, have not been attended to, save patchwork remedial measures. Vast lands, once home to flora and fauna are mere shadows of themselves with dead trees. Collapsed buildings, whose owners are too poor to rebuild festoon the landscape of the Delta region heavily impacted by flood.

I am confident that the story would be the same for Kogi, Benue, Anambra and other highly impacted states and communities. That this disaster may befall these communities so soon should trouble the minds of people, especially when the losses resulting from that flood is quantified.
More specifically, the Federal Government reported that economic losses from the 2022 flood disaster were estimated to be more than N4.2 trillion. More than 4.9 million people were negatively impacted by the flood and 603 people lost their lives. When we add to these, the trauma of dehumanizing conditions in poorly and hurriedly prepared camps for the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), the cost would be incalculable.

The bad news is that flood disasters of this nature are no longer once in a long while phenomenon. With global warming, flood disasters, and all other natural disasters for that matter, are not only frequent, but severer than ever before. Which is why, in climes governed by saner minds, conscious efforts are made to prioritize disaster risk management in the policy process.

Sadly, in the Nigerian experience, what we see for the most part, are predictions and warnings of doomsday ahead. For instance, early in 2022, the Nigeria Hydrological Services Agency (NIHSA), in its Annual Flood Outlook (AFO) predicted that year’s flood disaster. But beyond forecast and warnings, not much was done to prevent or mitigate the effect of the predicted flood disaster, described as the worst in the past three decades.

More to the point, agencies saddled with the responsibility for disaster risk management were caught off-guard as though there was never a forecast. Displaced persons were moved into dilapidated school buildings without windows and doors. Men, women and children were cramped into these inhabitable spaces for more two months. They slept on bare floors.

Having lost all they had, the victims depended on handouts from government, well-meaning individuals, corporate and charitable organizations for survival. Relief, especially from the government and its agencies was slow in coming.

Worse, government officials, looked up to for relief, chose to profit from the misfortunes of victims as they allegedly short-changed those in dire need of relief by delivering less than was officially approved.

At the end of the camp experience, they have since returned to washed off spaces or broken down structures that were once their homes. No farm, no home, no school and what is worse, no known post-disaster response plan to rebuild their broken lives. Governments, State, Local and Federal have carried on as though they owe no obligation to these scarred lives. Politicians who could not visit these victims while in the camps even had the moral courage to canvass for votes from these broken lives.

What is worrisome is that another season of prediction has come. The Annual Flood Outlook for 2023 is not significantly different from the 2022 forecast. It is predicted that 178 Local Government Areas in 32 States and the Federal Capital Territory will fall within the Highly Probable Flood Risk Areas; 224 LGAs in 35 States of the Federation including FCT will fall within the Moderately Probable Flood Risks Areas while the remaining 372 LGAs will fall within the Probable Flood Risks Areas. In one word, the picture, for flood-prone communities is gloomy.

As is typical of those saddled with governance responsibility in Nigeria, not much, by way of appropriate response should be expected. Law makers whose constituencies would soon be submerged by the flood are busy wheeling and dealing for leadership positions in the National Assembly. The National Assembly is not seen exercising its oversight functions by engaging the Executive arm by asking questions on what is being put in place to avert a re-occurrence of the 2022 disaster for which impacted communities have not recovered. To be sure, there is a clear case of marginalization of an emergency that poses existential threat to a good number of Nigerians.

The gloomy 2023 Annual Flood Outlook should compel us to engage our minds on a number of. One, if the omnibus Federal Government, arrogating most responsibilities to itself and effectively failing to perform any satisfactorily, has no emergency response plan for the coming disaster, what might States and Local Government Authorities do to prevent or mitigate the ravaging impact of another flood coming so soon? Two, can some of the States and Local Authorities, embarking on grandeur, albeit, needless projects, channel a fraction of the resources frittered away into dredging local Rivers and tributaries to prevent flooding?

Three, if prevention is considered difficult, could the State and Local Government Authorities highly impacted by flood begin the construction and equipping of IDP camps, fit for human habitation, now that the flood is not here yet? Finally, and quite importantly, what mechanisms do we need to put in place to ensure that emergency response is timely and is delivered in a manner that those saddled with the responsibility do so without making a fortune out of the misfortune of victims of flood?

The 2022 flood disaster experience is not one anyone would wish to relive so soon. The value of science and technology lies in its potency as instruments for taming the excesses of nature. Should the relevant agencies of government fail to take positive action to prevent or mitigate the coming flood disaster, in spite of the warnings and predictions, it would be an abuse of language for us to call the outcome, natural disaster. More appropriately, it should be seen for what it is – unnatural or governance disaster.

Aaron, a Professor of Political Economy and Development Studies is of the Faculty of the University of Port Harcourt, Nigeria.

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