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Dredging the drains: the race to stop floods in Accra

The remains of a petrol station in Accra, Ghana, that was engulfed in flames after heavy flooding caused the pumps to explode in 2015 during the annual rains/AFP

ACCRA, Ghana, May 17 – The seasonal rains are due in Ghana, and like every year since 2015, when more than 150 people were killed during the deluge, the disaster looms heavily over the capital, Accra.

Authorities are scrambling to prevent a similar emergency when the heavens open by clearing silt, rubbish and sludge from the open drains and waterways of the coastal city.

But unfortunately, the task is easier than it sounds because Accra, like other cities in West Africa and beyond, has seen decades of rapid population growth but not enough investment in infrastructure to keep up.

The city’s drainage system was built in 1963, six years after independence from Britain, when the population was about 500,000.

Today, Accra is home to about four million but the drains have stayed much the same: channels at the side of roads and houses, open to the elements or covered with paving slabs.

“Disasters are taking us over, there are certain things that do not have to happen,” hydraulic engineer Wise Ametefe told AFP.

“Very little rain doesn’t have to cause flooding in Accra but it’s causing flooding. We need to manage the flood.”

Done enough?

A dredging project of drains and water bodies in Accra is already making a “big difference”, according to Graham Sarbah, drains director at the Accra Metropolitan Assembly.

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The local government also has plans to reconstruct major drains and build new ones, he added.

In the meantime, the question is whether they have done enough to prepare for the torrential downpours that come in June and July, drenching the city with sheets of rain in a gale of wind.

Andy Sabbah, a 47-year-old public transit worker, was in Accra on June 3, 2015.

On that day, the rain flooded the streets, causing chaos. Near the Kwame Nkrumah Circle area of the city, people sought shelter under the canopy of a petrol station or in cars on the forecourt.

Leaked petrol floating on top of the water caught fire, burning down neighbouring buildings as well as the petrol station and trapping people in vehicles, then the pumps exploded.

Sabbah said he watched helplessly as the fire ripped through the neighbourhood. He helped clear the bodies once the inferno had died down.

Standing where the fuel station once was, next to the charred remains of some of the cars, he looked at the ground and said he lost friends that day. He still struggles to sleep.

Drains blocked with rubbish and construction debris were quickly blamed for causing the flooded roads.

With the rainy season approaching, Sabbah says he is not sure the government has done enough and is “waiting to see what will happen”.

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Accra has struggled to develop its sewer and drainage systems as its population explodes, making flooding an annual risk/AFP

Others are less equivocal. Michael Osei, a 36-year-old tailor who lives in a wooden structure near an open drain, said he had not seen any kind of clean-up efforts.

“Anytime it rains the water still overflows the gutter and gets into the stall,” he said.

Ad hoc development

In April, Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo pledged to make Accra the cleanest city in Africa by the end of his time in office.

The Accra Metropolitan Assembly has said it is introducing a “zero tolerance for filth” policy and vowed to crack down on illegal waste disposal, including the use of plastic bags and packaging that clog the city’s gutters.

Experts say they believe a clean up will help, but only up to a point.

Most of Accra’s population lives in low-income, densely populated communities, according to a 2010 study by Columbia University in New York.

The dwellings, which resemble slum property, are usually built out of necessity, without any consideration of urban planning goals, making them vulnerable to floods.

“Ad hoc physical development continues to outpace spatial, infrastructure and economic planning,” the study found.

For Ametefe, the engineer, and others in Accra, that is the key issue, and one that the authorities are facing in fast-growing cities from Lagos to Ouagadougou and beyond.

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Until unchecked development is tackled, Accra will continue to suffer through the rainy season, Ametefe said.

“If we keep on expanding the city, it means all the infrastructure we have now will not be adequate.”


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