Flooding disrupts the livelihoods and education of millions of Africans every year, and this problem is on the rise. Recent years have seen some of the most severe and widespread flooding in recorded history. It is estimated that the number of people affected by seasonal flooding in East Africa has increased by 500% in the last 5 years alone.
This is a problem across the continent. Weather patterns are becoming more volatile, and both dry seasons and rainy seasons are becoming more intense. It is a great irony of our time that Africa is one of the regions most severely affected by climate change, although Africa played almost no role in causing it.
Confronting the reality of the situation, however, is a higher priority than lamenting its origin. It is necessary to address flooding in order to continue building momentum for Africa’s transformation. When it comes to moving Africa forward, addressing the problem of flooding must be a top priority.
The Urgent Need to Address Flooding
The most obvious effect of flooding is economic damage and loss of life. The wave of floods across Africa in 2020 caused at least 400 deaths, with millions displaced. The economic damage is vast, although the exact amount is unknown.
It’s less common to hear about the effects on public health, however. Flooding is often associated with the outbreak of waterborne illnesses, including cholera, leptospirosis, typhoid, and hepatitis A. These effects may cause many more deaths which are not counted in the official death tolls.
The spread of waterborne diseases is especially serious in urban areas, where, in many cases, the population is growing quickly and sewage infrastructure cannot keep up.
Rapid Urbanization: A Mixed Blessing
Africa’s cities are growing fast. This is a good thing in many ways; urbanization is a major driver of economic growth. Jobs in cities generally pay better, and there are more opportunities for education and career development. Over the next 30 years, it is expected that Africa’s urban population will increase by approximately 950 million. There is generally a strong correlation between urbanization and GDP growth, so this means major changes for Africa’s economy.
Unfortunately, this rapid growth also increases the incidence and severity of flooding, as well as the number of people affected by flooding. There are several reasons for this.
1. Urban sprawl leads to the growth of informal neighborhoods that extend into flood plains, wetlands and other low-lying areas.
2. The construction of drainage systems often cannot keep up with the growth of cities.
3. With the greater volume of waste that comes with a larger population, existing drainage systems sometimes become clogged with trash, reducing their flow capacity.
4. Roads and concrete foundations reduce the total drainage capacity of the earth.
5. Drainage systems within a city are sometimes managed by different parties at the neighborhood, city, municipal, and national levels. This sometimes results in a lack of coordination of drainage systems within a single urban area.
Africa’s cities have the potential to become economic powerhouses that drive the transformation of the continent, but to realize this vision, residents must be secure in their homes and livelihoods. This is the aim of Engineer Africa’s Flood Prevention Initiative. This is discussed further on page 42 of the book we recently released. The book is available for download here.
Engineer Africa’s Flood Prevention Initiative
Mapping existing drainage systems and analyzing their flow capacity can yield insights into ways to improve their effectiveness. In many cases, the overall drainage potential of a system can be significantly increased by linking it to another nearby system. In this way, a relatively small investment can have a major impact on many people’s lives.
Another simple and affordable measure which can have a big impact in terms of reducing flooding is grating and filtration infrastructure. Analysis of both formal and informal drainage systems can determine where choke points are likely to form, and grating can then be installed to prevent debris and trash from blocking the channels.
Education is also an important part of this work. Raising awareness about the link between waste management practices and flooding can help to change behavioral patterns when dealing with trash. If communities better understand the importance of stormwater drainage, they may also be more willing to commit time and energy to maintaining drainage systems if government resources are limited.
This is an area where African engineers may be in a better position to make progress than engineers who are less familiar with local contexts. Truly sustainable development requires high levels of local engagement, and it is much easier for African engineers who are familiar with both local culture and languages and engineering principles to engage with communities and develop plans for maintenance and development.
Flood Prevention: Pivotal to Africa’s Success
Flood countermeasures like improved drainage systems are an essential element of the struggle to protect Africans from the challenge of an increasingly volatile climatic pattern. However, these efforts alone cannot solve the flooding crisis. A wider response is needed over the long term, but flood prevention is a priority of the first order because it directly affects many other essential components of the “big picture” of Africa’s development. Education, health, economic development and even food security all require stability. Preventing the turmoil caused by flooding will bring benefits in all these domains.
In the long term, there are many areas that simply are not well suited for residential developments, and flood prevention measures cannot provide total protection in all of them. Truly achieving a lasting solution to this crisis will require the provision of affordable and hygienic housing in areas that are safe from flooding.
This is the focus of another one of our initiatives, which will be detailed in another post. I also encourage readers to download our recently published book here to learn more about both our Flood Prevention and Affordable Housing initiatives, as well as many other aspects of Engineer Africa’s vision and projects.