Lagos residents lament losses to floods

Adebola Oni, 28, stands in front of a kiosk overlooking a marshland on Tony Enyinna Street, Gbagada. It had just rained that Sunday afternoon and the sun was forcing its way out of the sky’s grey shrouds.

At 3:57 p.m., Mr Oni had spent the most part of the day gathering gravel and sand to fill up leaking crucibles in his balcony from where water had leaked into his sitting room. After several rounds of pacing up and down the compound, he took a break outside alone, contemplating the tragedy of his plight.

“The rains are here again; living here is like sharing a room with the devil,” he told this reporter, standing over the mass of water spilling out of his apartment.

As he slowly emptied his frustrations into the silence, a whirlwind of dank, earthy smell oozed through the atmosphere, conjuring up images of rotting matter. And buried right in the midst of the green, sturdy undergrowth is a swamp; a confluence where a mass of both domestic and rain-water finds solace. Unfortunately, it is solace that would later morph into pain for residents of the neighbourhood.

“I regret moving into this apartment, I never knew the situation was this bad. It’s hard to tell whether you are living on the sea or land,” he said watching the water flow into a dingy estuary just beside his apartment.

The community, located on the Ifako area of Gbagada in Kosofe Local Government Area of Lagos State, is among the coastal suburbs nestled along the swampy margins of the more than 50 km-long Lagos Lagoon. With a steep topography that makes it the receptacle of rainwater from other neighbourhoods and its proximity to a major canal pouring into the lagoon, residents of this estate live in constant fear of the unknown whenever it rains.

The Warning

In April this year, the Nigeria Hydrological Services Agency warned that about 600 local government areas are under threat of flooding in 2019. In its Annual Flood Outlook, the Director-General of the agency, Clement Nze, advised that no person should build structures within these flood-prone areas while advocating for cleaner drainages across the country.

That counsel appeared to have been ignored by many Lagos home builders. A tour of Taodak Estate, a newly developed landholding in the Gbagada area, showed that most houses in the neighbourhood are surrounded by static water. In one of the houses situated on Otunba Taofeek Street, this reporter sighted a machine being used to empty water out of a storey-apartment.

“What (residents) face here is not just floods, it’s an emergency that needs to be addressed by the government. Go around and you will discover that many houses are flooded even when there is no rain,” a resident whose apartment was affected told this writer.

In an exercise tagged “Operation Remove and Cart Away” in August 2018, the Lagos State Public Works Corporation announced it had commenced efforts to clear primary canals in the metropolis. According to the Special Adviser to then Governor Akinwunmi Ambode on Public Works and Drainages, Temidayo Erinle, the aim of the exercise was to prevent lives and properties from damage occasioned by flooding.

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This initiative, however, did not translate to relief for residents of Gbagada.

Tales of losses, abandonment, death

Nwosu Bobbypetrus was happy in September 2018 when, after two years of a furtive job hunt, he landed a role with a real estate firm in Victoria Island. Still basking in that euphoria, he raised money alongside his friend to secure accommodation in Taodak Estate. But that excitement faded quickly.

One fateful Friday, after a week of toil and sweat, he retired home to meet his apartment thoroughly flooded.

“I got home that day and I felt like my entire life had collapsed because we had no other place to sleep that night. So, we spent some hours trying to scoop out the water, but it had already soaked virtually everything, including the mattress. We eventually slept in my neighbour’s parlour that night,” he said.

But Tajudeen, who has since vowed not to renew his rent at its expiration in August this year, was not so lucky. After his wife miraculously escaped a giant snake, which came into their apartment with the floods, it was time to say goodbye, at least for a while. “We fled the house in September when we started having issues with snakes coming into the house. My son first sighted one (snake) on their way from school one day. I was forced to move my wife and kids to my mother’s house in Ikorodu. It was a tough moment for the family because it put a lot of pressure on our small finances,” he said.

A trader, who identified herself as Mrs Oloyede, said the floods destroyed the goods kept at her mini-warehouse at home. Although, she could not give an estimate of the worth.

“I left home for many weeks when I could no longer stand the frustration,” said a resident of Otunba Taofeek Street, who identified himself as Bamidele and trades in Ankara prints in Idumota. He said he was forced to relocate to his brother’s residence in Agbado, a Lagos suburb located 41.3km away from Idumota.

Bukola Atlil, who said she had been staying in Taodak Estate for more than three years, seemed the most unfortunate. “Water enters our house, whether there’s rain or not. It becomes worse between July and October every year. You could just be sitting at home and find water pouring into your house from nowhere,” she said.

Yet, a certain ordeal stands out for her. “I was preparing to go to a wedding reception one Saturday around August last year. After dressing up and stepping out to pick up the shoe I was wearing for the occasion, the flood had carried it. That day, I had to wade through the dirty water that had drowned the entire street until I started itching.”

Same state, same story

Elsewhere across the state, the story is the same. Few hours after a heavy downpour on May 20, the house of veteran actor, Ajirebi Olasehinde, popularly known as Pa James (of Papa Ajasco fame), was inundated by floods, sacking the 61-year-old and his family from his Oke-Odo residence. In a post on Instagram, his son, Samuel Ajirebi, said the incident was happening for the tenth year despite efforts to stir the state government to action.

The younger Ajirebi, who claimed the floods had brought the family severe losses, said the incident was caused by an overflowing canal located behind their street.

Also, on May 15, a 26-year-old Accounting graduate of the University of Lagos, Adewura Bello, was declared missing. According to multiple reports, the young lady was said to be heading to her Egbeda home in Alimosho local government when the incident occurred. Eleven days later, residents found her dead body in a canal.

According to reports, Ms Bello was swept by heavy floods into an open manhole pouring into a canal in Abule-Odu area of the state. Eyewitnesses said they were unable to save her as the “massive” flood washed her into the hole.

Where are the subventions?

Perhaps these tragic events could have been averted if a N750 million fund earmarked for dredging waterways was effectively put into use.

In 2015, the Lagos State Ministry of the Environment launched a drainage masterplan to address the problem of flooding in the state. An official of the Office of Drainage Services explained that some houses in the state were at the risk of being submerged by floods if drastic steps were not taken. The plan was announced in partnership with Dar Al-Handasah Consultants, a global multi-disciplinary consulting firm whose speciality includes the environment.

According to information on the company website, the consultants were required to develop a stormwater drainage masterplan and a Pilot Area Integrated Infrastructure System. This followed series of site investigations, project cost estimate and action plans. These estimates were not made public.

However, in the Lagos State 2016 approved budget, N250 million subvention was earmarked for the maintenance of drainages across the state. Subsequently, the state government allotted the same amount (N250 million) for both 2017 and 2018 budgets, amounting to N750m in three years.

It remains unclear whether the same amount was allocated in the 2019 budget presented in April by the immediate former governor, Akinwunmi Ambode as the details of the allocations could not be obtained at the time of filing this report.

Several attempts were made to get the Lagos State Emergency Management at the Alausa Secretariat to comment on the utilisation of the funds were unsuccessful. In each case, this reporter was redirected to the Ministry of Environment. In one of the visits to the ministry, this reporter was told by a female officer at the Public Affairs unit under the Ministry of Environment that Drainage Services was the right unit to answer his questions. According to her, Drainage Services had been moved to the Lagos State Public Works Corporation in Ojodu, Berger.

Efforts to reach the principal officer in charge of drainage services at Ojodu were unsuccessful. During the first visit to the new location, this reporter was told that “oga” was not available. During the second visit, he was asked to write a letter to the Permanent Secretary, explaining his request.

‘No dredging in three years’

However, a senior official in the Lagos State Ministry of Environment said the government had not undertaken any dredging exercise in the past three years despite budgetary provision. The senior official, who asked not to be named, as he was not authorised to speak on the matter, said the problem of residents will continue to compound until the government takes action.

Explaining why the situation gets worse every year, he said: “there’s an arch channel around that area. Normally, it gets bigger and bigger every year. If you don’t do anything about it, it keeps widening. And the wider it becomes, the more dangerous for people who live around it. In fact, those people who live on the edge of the channel are only risking their lives.”

He said the new government of Babajide Sanwo-Olu has to put in place a plan to do something about the situation as the last government had no such plans.

“If you speak to anyone in Drainage, they will tell you there is no money on ground for the project. But every day, people come here to complain about heavy floods taking over their apartments, and that their lives are at risk,” he said.

He added that except there was financial allocation from the state government, the affected LCDA can do nothing to solve the problem because the projects are usually capital intensive.

Climate Change

Nigeria’s climate has witnessed significant spatial and temporal changes with extreme weather and climate conditions with ocean surges and floods becoming more regular, according to the Nigeria Meteorological Agency (NiMet). These shifts come with a number of socio-economic impacts on agriculture, hydrology, construction, education and health.

The persistent invasion of water – caused both by canal overflow and floods – has left many buildings in this community in bad shape. As if to set the lid on a boiling cauldron, a significant chunk of the houses are built on swamps while others lack a drainage system. This reporter ran into a marshy, undeveloped land inundated by water.

Two men were seen manually sand-filling the land in preparation for the erection of a structure. This reporter would later learn that the landowner wants to start putting up a structure there.

In some parts of the community, the houses are weak and humid with patches of stagnant water. In one of the houses, water had forced the fence to severe off its attachment to the concrete floor, allowing seepage into the compound. Some of the houses are wobbly, as though about to cave in.

Amongst other things, the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals 11 seeks to significantly reduce the direct impact of economic losses by disasters (including water-related disasters) with a focus on protecting the poor and people in vulnerable situations by 2030. But until these residents can feel safe in their homes when it rains, without the fear of floods submerging their apartments, this aspiration remains a tall dream for them, and one they cannot lay claim as their own.

Getting out of the woods

The NIHSA has predicted coastal flooding in five states across the country, including Lagos. Its DG, who warned against erecting structures in flood plains, said Nigeria should focus on building flood-resilient communities to alleviate the impact of the floods.

Co-founder of African Cleanup Initiative (ACI), Alexander Akhigbe, wants residents to leave the community, pending when the government rises to the occasion. “I would advise people living there to find elsewhere to stay. Their safety comes first and they should not wait for the government,” he says.

“Water is not something you can manage, especially floods. Let it not be said that the day it floods, a baby is left alone outside. It will be tragic. There’s also the part about health. You don’t want your children to have contact with that kind of contaminated water.”

“I think we are not doing enough to obliterate the root cause of these irregular weather patterns,” said Adebayo Caleb, a lawyer and environmentalist.

“While the government cannot prevent heavy rains, it can prepare residents for resilience. We are hardly seeing any resilience initiatives from relevant agencies – whether for households, crops, or vulnerable population. We have a very typical culture of waiting till the disaster happens while hoping and praying it never does. It’s simply a case of the foolish virgins.”

For residents of this community, and those in similar situations across Lagos, the 2019 raining season evokes something ominous; a curious contradiction of the aphorism that water is life. For these ones, life is a potpourri of sorry joys, and so would wake up every other day, seeking a miracle not to be included in the gory statistics.

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