Friday, September 21, 2007

An Overwhelming Water

Some people in Canada have asked me about the flooding in northern Ghana. I didn’t realize this was getting international coverage, but it’s certainly serious enough to warrant it.

I’m currently working on an article for the Canadian Water Network on this topic. I’ll post it once I’ve submitted it, but here are some of the details.

It’s an amazing contrast: back in June, people were praying that the rains would come. As I’ve described before, the rain was delayed this year – it didn’t arrive when expected, which is a huge problem for rural farmers who rely mainly on rain for crop irrigation. My friend Imoro, who owns a farm in Nantinga (about 1.5 hours from Bolgatanga) just showed me some of this year’s corn: its growth was stunted, and when he peeled back the husk I saw that many of the kernels were simply missing -- the result of poor rainfall.

“Early millet” is normally planted in June and depends on the June rainfall. This is a major crop which farmers rely on for both food and for selling on the market. This year, it simply didn’t grow.

But the rains eventually did come. They started in July, and came with great ferocity.

The expression “when it rains, it pours” has taken on a sinister dimension this year in northern Ghana. The rain has been so severe that low-lying areas have been inundated. Crops have been washed away, fields turned to mud, and houses destroyed.

I spoke with Anderson Anaphor-Nabia, the Regional Co-ordinator for NADMO, the National Disaster Management Organisation in the Upper East Region.

“I don’t think we’ve experienced such a rainfall for 10 years or more,” he said. “The magnitude is huge. It has really overwhelmed us.”

He listed off the damage for me, district by district. Statistics are still being gathered, but Anaphor-Nabia claims that in total, over 5,700 mud houses have been destroyed. He said that over 22,000 people had been displaced by the excessive rain in 6 out of 8 districts (the numbers for the remaining 2 districts are still being added up). The final number will surely top 25,000.

You’d think that, with such a risk of flooding, people would avoid settling or farming in low-lying areas. But Anaphor-Nabia explained that the farmers have little choice. When the rains are poor, the water will collect in low-lying areas: thus yields will be higher there. Farmers want a good harvest, so they’re willing to risk the relatively small chance of severe flooding. This year that strategy has hurt them: next year, it could mean more and better maize than in the areas on higher ground.

What I’ve described is the immediate damage. It still remains to be seen what subsequent damage will be caused by water-borne disease like cholera, or mosquito-borne disease like malaria. And the truly difficult time will come in the lean season next year, as (already limited) food stocks run out.

As I’ve said before, in Canada we have systems in place to buffer against sudden environmental shocks. Can you imagine a food crisis in Canada as a result of erratic rains? (Barring Global Warming, of course.) But one of the major characteristics of poverty is vulnerability. The farmers of northern Ghana are incredibly vulnerable, and don’t have the same kind of social or physical buffers that we take for granted.

I’m currently staying in Nantinga at Imoro’s house, and working at the neighbouring Bawku Municipal Assembly for 3 days. I thought the rain had finished for this year. But last night brought a torrential downpour. I lay in bed at Imoro’s house and listened to the rain pound against the tin roof above.

The sound was overwhelming.

9 comments:

Erin said...

hi luke,
thanks for sharing the current news from ghana. i hope you are able to find your place in the next few months and help people dealing with this sudden change of one environmental extreme to another. good luck, and keep writing!
-erin

Nathan Tidridge said...

Hey Luke - I had not heard of the floods, thank you for bringing them to my attention. Was this a result of Global Warming?

Nathan

Ian said...

Hey Luke

Those rains sound pretty intense - its actually impossible for me to imagine what that kind of torrential downpour and flooding looks like.

Though I was curious if anyone of the farmers there practice rainwater harvesting (ie. like a series of cascading ponds) to recharge the local aquifers or some such thing that would help them through the dry season.

Ian

Luke Brown said...

Nathan: I'm no climatologist, but a quick google search finds some articles linking Global Warming to the floods in West Africa (see http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1664429,00.html or http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0a0f3f0c-6643-11dc-9fbb-0000779fd2ac.html).

Ian: The closest thing I can think of to a comprehensive rainwater harvesting system is dams. There are many dams in the Upper East -- essentially big artificial mounds of earth that are formed into walls in low-lying areas to block the flow of rainwater and surface runoff, creating ponds. These dams are then used throughout the year for washing, irrigation, livestock and sometimes drinking.

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