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Opinions of Friday, 19 April 2019

Columnist: Henry Adobor

Of floods, the loss of life and the drunkard's search: Some lamentations

This week, not fewer than seven people were reported to have died because of the recent flooding in Accra.

Not too long ago we lost many people in a horrendous motor accident. It never seems to stop. I can understand if these loses were a result of some natural disaster we could not have predicted, maybe a terrible earthquake or something.

However, these were largely not. They were predictable to a fair extent.

My heart goes out to the families of those who perished in the recent floods. For those lost, we can only pray that they are in a better place now. Your nation has failed you. The Town and City planners have failed us; our governments over the years have failed. We have all failed you.

It is a recurring and predictable thing by now: every year the rains will come, there will be floods, some people will die, we cry, go back to our regular lives and wait until the following year only for the same thing to happen again. So is it in God’s plan that very year someone has to die during the rainy season? How can we be this helpless as a nation

I have thought about this for a long time. Any loss of life is regrettable. However, losing people to something we know would surely come every year, something this predictable should make all of us angry first, and then hang our collective heads in shame.

There is a well-known saying in Ghana, something to the effect that if you hear death is coming, even a cripple would run. And here we are, knowing that the rains and floods will come very year and yet do nothing until tragedy strikes, repeatedly. What a shame.

It never ceases to amaze me to see the kinds of choices and solutions we opt for in the face of major challenges. The logic of our solutions matched against the scale of the problems reminds me of that old story that has become a metaphor for the absurdity of certain human choices. Rather than narrate this myself, I will simply paste here the usual narration, in another writers words:

A police officer sees a drunken man searching for something under a streetlight and asks what the drunkard has lost. He says he lost his keys and they both look under the streetlight together. After a few minutes, the police officer asks if he is sure he lost them here, and the drunk man replies, no, and that he lost them in the park. The police officer asks why he is searching here, and the drunk replies, "because this is where the light is"

Also known as the Streetlight effect, this “story” demonstrates that sometimes what looks obvious, convenient and easy after all is the wrong thing. Big problems require big ideas, reasoned, carefully thought out solutions, not solutions on the fly.

When we do muster some courage to address the causes of this perennial flooding in Accra, much as we do with most disasters, we look where the street light is. The loudest suggestions and arguments I have heard this week were about desilting gutters and how some are suggesting desilting of the gutters have not been done for some time. My question is did the engineers, town planners and politicians just realize the gutters need to be desilted or have not been desilted for some time? We cannot place a bandage on this wound only for it to fester and start oozing again next year.

Sometimes radical surgery is what is needed.

I hope that the city planners, the Mayors of cities and the responsible government ministries will get together on this and plan. The reasons for the perennial flooding are well known. You do not have to be a rocket scientist to know: poor planning, poor and inadequate drainage systems, unregulated and illegal construction of housing everywhere and anywhere, including on waterways, indiscriminate dumping of rubbish, polythene bags and an overall high level of indiscipline as a nation.

The level of indiscipline in Ghana is simply mindboggling. There are laws on the books on construction etc. but no one respects them and I think I know why: there is zero enforcement. Some of those charged with enforcing the laws either simply look the other way, take bribes, and let people violate the laws. When there are institutional voids, people simply create their own rules and do whatever they like. We are paying for this level of incompetence and willful neglect with the lives of our citizens.

The President must hold those responsible for city planning and maintaining these so-called drainage systems. It would take a whole book to write about the nature of or lack of drainage systems and I am not qualified to write on that. At least whatever you have now must be maintained ahead of time, not after a crisis.

I hope the President would tell a long list of people that unless concrete action is taken to address the issue of flooding before the rains next year, they would be out of their jobs. I hope he takes a very serious view on this. I believe we need Presidential leadership on this or else as usual, nothing concrete will be done until next year again.

There is always the feeling that the technical people (civil engineers, town planners, and land administrators) have the plans and answers to most of the problems associated with the terrible lack of enforcement of zoning and building laws, a big part of the flooding problem, but the politicians control the purse strings and therefore nothing is done about this situation. The professionals need to speak up. Professionals have a moral and ethical responsibility to themselves, their professions and society to ensure that their expertise is not simply disregarded. I will leave the politicians out of it for now. Another time will do.

It is easy to accept that a lack of proactive planning and serious thinking is the way things are in our corner of the world. However, why should we accept mediocrity? We can and must do better than this.

Taking proactive action, and hopefully, preventing further loss of life next year the rains come may be a partial pacification of the spirits of our compatriots lost to floods this year. At least they deserve that.