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Opinions of Thursday, 21 June 2018

Columnist: Kwadwo Agyapong Antwi

The ‘positive’ side of the perennial Accra floods

June 3rd 2015 is a day that will live in infamy in Ghana‘s recent history. In so many ways, it was just an ordinary day for a city which has been experiencing flooding that time of year, dating as far back as the 1970s.

On that fateful day, however, the usual flooding which causes a couple of deaths and heavy financial loses would take a dramatic turn and shake the conscience of our nation. By the time the mayhem was over, more than 200 people laid perish in its wake; throwing the nation into a state of mourning.

'Natural disasters’ do not discriminate along the lines of political affiliation, ethnicity, social status and any of the trivial differences we use to tout our superiority over our fellow citizens. The victims of the fire and flood that June day identified with every demographic group in our nation: The Rich, Poor, Adults, Children, NPP, NDC...

In the midst of the shock and confusion, many of our people would be made to believe, rather erroneously, that we would rise up as a nation and seek a final solution to a problem that has become part of our capital city's image. Being a religious people, it was not surprising that many looked to God for answers. Back then, I authored an article entitled "Are we praying too much?", which sought to address the absurdity in using religion as a tool for tackling these kinds of issues. In the said article I stated, perhaps rather controversially, that God seems to have a habit of taking naps during heavy downpours; knowing he's not our sanitation minister or an employee of Zoomlion.

Anyway, like many Ghanaians, I was hopeful that our authorities would finally rise to the occasion, see the problem for what it truly is and implement a lasting solution - because, unlike poverty, floods affect everybody, including the so-called elite.

The wake-up call that I was merely daydreaming came when reports of mismanagement of the emergency funds earmarked for the victims and their families started trickling in. I was appalled, saddened and disappointed that someone, anyone, could live with the conscience of embezzling funds meant for people who had suffered such a horrendous tragedy.

Then it occurred to me that the same class of people who were expected to consider a relevant solution to this national embarrassment were some of the very people who purportedly embezzled the funds. Now, if these people couldn't care less about the victims and their families, how would they ever be interested in reconstruction and redevelopment?
I readjusted my expectations. As expected, in the next couple of years, like so many other scandals, we would forget about the unfortunate victims: not even a befitting monument to honor their memory was elected. To many of us, they were just a couple of unlucky Ghanaians, a dot in the underbelly of our history.

But, unlike humans, nature doesn't have a soul, and so even though we moved on, we have still experienced flooding in Accra every year since the disaster. Over the years, I have had different reactions to the flooding every time social media erupts with pictures and videos of the chaos it leaves in its wake.

These reactions have ranged from anger, shock, desperation and other such negative emotions, until this year. Looking at images from this year's flooding, my reaction was, "Perhaps the perennial floods in Accra is actually a ‘positive’ thing".

Now, I'm aware that this view is rather unconventional and not a popular one to hold, but before it ignites your irk, kindly allow me to explain why I think so:

For many years, we have categorized the Accra flooding with other natural disasters; as if the flooding is an act of God. This is a rather erroneous position because the flooding in Accra is anything but natural. It is a situation which has been created by our actions and inactions, and until we see it for what it really is, we would continue to blame the wrong sources and fail to take action. The rains in Accra is natural, the flooding is not.

Let's get a little personal: say you belong to the middle and upper classes of society, and privileged to live in some of Accra's better suburbs, have you ever asked yourself where the water from your shower ends up? Did it ever occur to you that, for a city this size, we do not have a functional central sewerage system? That ‘gutters’, a ninth century invention, is still the centerpiece of our city's sewerage system? Interspersed among our seemingly plush communities are puddles of water, your water, just waiting for a little rain to become rivers which would eventually flood our city, claim a couple of lives and expose our hypocrisy.

I think the flooding is ’good’ because it exposes our pretentiousness and serves as a constant reminder that a comprehensive solution is needed; a solution which goes beyond the usual knee jerk demolition of structures belonging to some of our most vulnerable citizens.

In a way, it is like a giant mirror that reveals our character and attitude to ourselves. It reminds us that by simply erecting expensive billboards and other monuments, we don't get to attain the status of a "millennium city" or the "cleanest city in Africa".

Sometime last year, I came across an interesting exhibition in the streets of Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic. It was to commemorate the 7th anniversary of a citywide flooding which occurred in 2010.

The images displayed were those taken during the flooding, juxtaposed with recent ones of similar locations. In one of the displays, the smiling mayor of the city proudly described the aftermath of the flood, the cost to the city and, more importantly, the interventions they took to ensure it never happened again.

She 'boasted' with pride that they had the opportunity to test their defenses during another deluge of rain two years after their intervention and came out on top; another win of human over nature- in line with the civilization of our species.

Needless to say, those interventions in Prague were not in the form of lengthy speeches, radio discussions and hashtags. Until we have people who are proud to leave a legacy and a citizenry that holds leadership accountable, the artificial floods will keep serving as an important reminder of our leadership inefficiency; not just in flood management, but in everything else.