Addressing the Flooding Problem in Liberia – by Seltue Robert Karweaye

Last updated 01/01/2012

The Month of June in Liberia seems to be the rainy season when the streets are usually flooded, destroying houses and other property. This month happens to be a month when I reflect on why life treated some of us so differently. Why is it that some have the cake and can cut it with wine and caviar, and some have to struggle under the yoke of oppressed leadership and depressed mentalities that seem to have no end? The International Financial Institutions (IFIs) may have a changed heart about Liberia and even about our problems, but are Liberia politicians going to have a changed mind in how to solve our problems?

Climate change is increasing the vulnerability of the urban poor throughout Liberia. Already many are forced to live in hazardous places, building their homes and growing their food on floodplains while others construct their shelters on steep, unstable hillsides, or along the foreshore on mangrove swamps or tidal flats. Liberia is already vulnerable to destructive floods, damaging landslides or storm surges, climate change is making the situation of the poor in Liberia worse. Flood hazards are natural phenomena, but damage and losses from floods are the consequence of human action. The current urbanization in Monrovia and its environ aggravates flooding by restricting where flood waters can go, covering large parts of the ground with roofs, roads and pavements, obstructing sections of natural channels and building drains that ensure that water moves to rivers faster than it did under natural conditions. As more people crowd into Monrovia and it’s environ, so the effects intensify. As a result, even quite moderate storms produce high flows in rivers because there are more hard surfaces and drains. If Liberian government failed adequately to address the problem of flooding in the country than I for see trouble.

Rain fall and flooding in Monrovia is no new news but June 2010 flooding is new and sad news. In Monrovia, localized flooding occurs many times during the raining season in slum areas because there are few drains, most of the ground is highly compacted and pathways between dwellings become streams after heavy rain. Such drains and culverts are often blocked by waste and debris. Small streams in urban areas in Liberia rise quickly after heavy rain. Major rivers flowing through urban areas are affected by land use changes. In lowland and coastal Monrovia, raining season flooding usually affect some areas for two or more months, because rain and river water combine to raise the levels of water in swamps. Construction of unregulated shelters by poor people in slum areas has reduced infiltration of rainfall. Some of the increase is probably due to climate change, but some is also the direct result of land cover change. Flooding is a major problem in all informal settlements in Monrovia. In the West Point Slum, next to the river, houses are built of weak, inadequate building materials. Flooding is a normal occurrence in the West Point slum. In West Point and other areas, migration has led to more houses being built close to rivers, meaning greater disruption when floods occur. In the swamp areas like Bushrod Island, Sinkor, Congo Town, Paynesville, etc responses to flooding include: bailing water out of houses to prevent damage to belongings; placing children initially on tables and later removing them to nearby unaffected dwellings; digging trenches around houses before and during floods; constructing temporary dykes or trenches to divert water away from the house; relocating to the highest parts of the dwelling that residents think are secure; or using sandbags to prevent the ingress of water.

So how do politicians or government officials respond to national disaster? Well politicians or government officials used national disaster to score some photo opportunity points every time these national disasters occurred in Liberia. Some would get out of their luxury cars and even assist the victims of the disaster by participating in cleaning up exercise. Some even use their personal so-called NGO or Foundation to assist. For Liberian officials or politicians, all it takes is showing they care about the masses and before you know it their pictures that are all around the Liberian news. Does a politician’s or official of government flag-waving solve problems in Liberia? The Liberian government has no national disaster and emergency policies. We have no special ministry with responsibility for disaster preparedness and response. As a development practitioner, I am advocating for the creation of national disaster agency in Liberia. What are the significant of such agency? The overall objective of such agency is for disaster preparedness and management in Liberia which will save lives and livelihoods and reduce Liberia’s vulnerability to likely disasters. The agency and through cooperation with local communities, NGOs, local and international donor organizations – and can enhance the country’s ability to contain or minimize the social and economic effects of disasters. Under such agency government can strategies with the aims of mitigating the impact of hazards in order to avoid disasters. This will imply good land use planning and avoiding the placing of dwellings in hazardous locations. Ghana and Mozambique are good examples of what I am advocating for. Ghana government established the Ghana National Disaster Management Organization (NADMO) under their Ministry of Interior. NADMO coordinate emergency and disaster response, and general national disaster preparedness. NADMO has established disaster management committees at the national, regional and district levels and plans to coordinate the activities of all collaborating agencies. In Mozambique a new Master Plan for Prevention and Mitigation of Natural Disasters was approved in March 2006, as part of the 2005–2009 poverty reduction strategy.

Had some of us not studied overseas and lived overseas for a while, we would not have known that American and European also have problems and natural disasters.

In the South Eastern region of the United States at this time there are always threats of hurricanes and tornadoes, strong winds that show nature’s forces and at its worst. In her fury, these tornadoes, hurricanes and storms can lift whole houses and cars off their tracks and foundations, and deposit them miles way. In Europe, ash, a gigantic cloud of ash thrown up by a volcanic eruption in Iceland forced aviation authorities to cancel hundreds of flights recently. The plume of volcanic debris drifted south overnight and covering an arc of airspace from Ireland to Norway. What we know in Liberia is that these natural disasters such as heavy storms don’t have any faith in man.They just come and remove whatever they want, and there is nothing we seem to be able to do about it. Do we succumb? The idea of succumbing to natural disasters is hard for some of us to swallow. I don’t know the number of Engineers working in Liberia but I do know that Engineers never give up and succumb to nature. That is their training. They fight until solutions are found. Perhaps it is for this innate difference in men that make people itch and criticize sometimes. How can a whole nation of 3.5 million people with such lovely land, plenty of national resources and rich oil discovery waiting to be exploited, a country of strong, intelligent and proud people succumb to nature? And our leaders relegate the thinking process of our brains to an entity called World Bank or IMF! How possible? In 2008 during my visit to Liberia, I entered the office of one of my old school mates, a powerful member of parliament and asked him nicely why our streets were so dirty. His answer was: “Seltue, we don’t have money”. Since he was 3 year my senior in school in the 1990’s, I could not ask him the next logical question. “Do we have any brains to clean up our streets?” I was just being diplomatic, as you know. There are some who have proudly shouted from the mountain tops: Liberian solutions to Liberia problems. I love the sound of this, and it really makes me feel like taking my shirt off like the old palm wine drinkers in my father’s village and saying “We too are men!”. But on second thought, I am not going to do that. I really don’t see how flooding is a Liberian problem? I don’t see how dirty streets where garbage is littered all over or burned in broad daylight, heavy black smoke emitted from cars to choke even the brave from breathing, are Liberian problems? No! I don’t see them that way. I have seen litter and dirt sometimes even in American and European streets and cities, and I have seen flooding, and I have seen earthquakes, volcanoes and some hurricanes as well but are these American and European problems? Americans and European solve them daily. Flooding in Monrovia and it’s environ is not something that we in Liberia can apply for rights and say “we own it”. We are as human beings as any in the world, eating and drinking exclusive patent, and nature is no tougher on us than it is in America or Europe. So what is our problem? Where are our leaders failing to hire many engineering talent? This year has been more rains than some anticipated. In the first week of June 2010, there has been so much rain in Monrovia there are records set. There are many reasons why Monrovia has poor drainage and flooding every rainy season. Among them is the fact that we have NO CITY DESIGN. Simple!! It seems Monrovia has never seen a City Planner since it was started some 160 or more years ago! The Monrovia City Cooperation and the Ministry of Public Work in its bid to make Monrovia a flood free zone would have to demolish over hundreds of buildings in the metropolis to allow for construction of drains in flood prone areas. Public Works Minister Samuel Woods says the Ministry needs 13 million United States Dollars to make Monrovia a water-free city. The Public Works Minister made the disclosure when a Government assessment team toured areas affected by Wednesday’s flooding. The officials of the three Government entities blamed constant flooding in the Monrovia area on abuse of water channels by residents.

Question: Are Monrovia City Corporation not working together with the Ministry of Lands Mines and Energy which gives builders permits and register the lands?

Is the current demolition exercise been carried out by MCC and Ministry of Public Work a plan thought out carefully which including consultation with City Engineers (hope they have such people at MCC or Public Work)? What will be the cost of such demolition and are there any alternatives? It is the opinion of many of us who have built houses in Monrovia that the MCC is a very ill-managed apparatus of government. They don’t know how to manage, and they want to wield arbitrary power without being able to deliver basic cleanliness to even make Monrovia, the capital, seem a normal city. The MCC has failed to pick up garbage, failed to name all streets and failed to number houses. The MCC has been reported as paying its executives hundreds of thousands of dollars, when they cannot even use part of the taxes they collect daily to provide simple public toilets for city. They cannot enforce simple laws of decency requiring decent sanitary toilets by Banks and businesses doing business with the city. Disaster reduction or vulnerability reduction is not a priority at MCC or Ministry of Land Mines and Energy If these public institutions enforces land, zoning and building regulations, flooding could be greatly reduced. This is done in every civilized nation that I am sure Mayor Mary Broh has visited and perhaps lived overseas. Please note that I am not trying to put all blame on the current City Mayor, since Mayor Broh is a new mayor of Monrovia. However, the Ministry of Land Mines and Energy, MCC, and the Ministry of Public Work should sit down with Architects and City Planners, or hire some good ones, plus a City Manager, pay them well, and with a pen and paper and calculator:

  • List all the negative things people see and have reported long ago about Monrovia, that has made Monrovia a poor place to do business for Liberians as well as potential investors: Traffic, garbage and dirt, lack of planned roads with new development, flooding and poor drainage problems, central sewage system, water services, lack of fire hydrants and water in the fire stations, poor road surfacing, lack of street names, lack of consecutive house numbering, lack of public parks, lack of public libraries.
  • Used the Pen and Paper and Computer to find ways to add up the taxes collected, and brainstorm what needs to be done to solve the problems in the nation capital.

I would recommend strongly that the City Mayor of Monrovia, Minister of Land Mines and Energy, Minister for Public Works takes their jobs very seriously. Act and plan like other officials of government in major cities around the world do. Bulldog dictatorial Liberia solutions will not work. Liberia is spending lots of money to woo investors, with President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the Chairman of the National Investment Commission and others making trips outside every week or months at tremendous cost to the taxpayer. Let’s Plan and Make good use of our human and other talent and resources, and make Liberia a beautiful place we can all be proud of.

n conclusion, flooding or national disaster in my opinion is one of the major factors that will prevents Liberia’s growing population of city dwellers from escaping poverty, and stands in the way of the UN 2020 goal of achieving ‘significant improvement’ in the lives of urban slum dwellers if nothing is done by the Liberian government to address the flooding problem in Liberia. To ignore the role flood plays in urban poverty in Liberia is to deny disadvantaged Monrovians their chance at a better life. Both climate change and the local causes of flooding need to be tackled in Liberia.

In order to tackle flooding in Liberia, priority actions should include:

The establishment of national disaster Agency and emergency policies:

1. Making sure the growing human challenge of flooding is addressed in Liberia;
2. Developing policies, planning and actions by government.
3. Investing in proper and safe infrastructure, such as drainage, as locally appropriate.
4. Ensuring that poor people participate in all decision-making processes equally with experts in flood reduction policies. Making sure that critical services such as health, water and sanitation are disaster prepared, which means they are able to provide adequate services during floods.

Implementing the Hyogo Framework of Action, agreed at the World Conference on Disaster Reduction in 2005, at all levels of urban planning and service delivery.

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