x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Welcome back to Hell

When Senegal's president, Abdoulaye Wade, returned from his holiday to France in September 2007, local newspapers carried the headline "Welcome to Hell".

When Senegal's president, Abdoulaye Wade, returned from his holiday to France in September 2007, local newspapers carried the headline "Welcome to Hell". The capital, Dakar, built on sea-level swampland dried by years of drought, was heavily flooded. Swollen clouds hung low over the city and a mixture of warm rainwater and raw sewage was coursing through the streets. Hundreds of thousands were homeless.

Next door in Burkina Faso, there were deaths and more displacement as rain lashed the capital, Ouagadougou. In northern Ghana, the White Volta river burst its banks, destroying fields days before farmers were about to harvest the maize crop. Across the region, 300 people died and 800,000 lost their homes. Entire communities were left without food, a place to sleep or access to health care. The International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC) called the floods "unprecedented" and asked for US$18.4 million (Dh67.5m) in emergency relief to cope with the spike in waterborne diseases and the rebuilding of homes, schools and clinics.

Aid could not come fast enough; in suburban slums outside the Senegalese town of Thiès, which received 12cm of rain in one night, residents resorted to using rubbish to shore up their rapidly sinking homes. The UN launched an urgent appeal for $85m, enough to help flood victims in East Africa (Uganda and Sudan were also hit hard) as well as those in West Africa. Three weeks later, only $1m had been raised.

Jerry Niati, of the IFRC in Senegal, said the floods were a "forgotten disaster". He said: "Sometimes it's because they happen at a slow rate - they are very unsexy disasters and people do not really pay attention to that." As the streets dried out, some funds trickled in. The UN and IFRC distributed emergency aid to the region, dedicating money to rebuilding homes and schools. The British aid agency Christian Aid sent £70,000 (Dh392,000) to Burkina Faso to fund crop distribution and put in place long-term measures to prevent damage in the future.

In 2008, the floods came again, washing away nine bridges in Togo and Burkina Faso and killing dozens. In 2009, they hit even harder, claiming the lives of 103 people in mudslides in hilly Sierra Leone. In Burkina Faso, 160 people died and 500,000 were displaced - they were housed in schools and churches for months. The West African landscape does not take well to flooding. The tough, red earth is better accustomed to drought. Dakar's hardened taxi drivers laugh in the face of anyone who dares wonder if climate change is a myth. They have seen it happen. They all know someone who has lost their home or their farmland to the unpredictable rains.

This year, West Africa's emergency flood response will start early. The UN and IFRC are already preparing for the task ahead, in case the heavy rains strike again. It is likely to happen; parts of West Africa's coastline are gradually falling into the sea and some environmentalists predict that Dakar could be under water within 50 years. Though it has not rained since October, some of the city's streets are still coated in a thin film of water, a dirty mirror reflecting damaged houses. Last year Senegal's government poured $4m into the emergency response effort, re-housing flood victims on higher ground. But when Mr Wade returned from this year's summer holiday in France, he was once again criticised by the media for not doing enough to help. "Welcome to Hell, President," the papers said, again.

* The National