Building a Resilient Greater Accra

October 9, 2017
Source: David Ampofo l thebftonline l Ghana
Building a Resilient Greater Accra

What is a resilient city? I think a resilient city is one that withstands shocks like the floods, earthquakes, tsunami, and other threats that loom over us like fire and cholera. Year in year out, in Accra, flooding destroys lives and property to no end. The floods of June 3, 2015 are still fresh in our minds as a reminder that tragedy can take place unexpectedly. In a matter of hours, continuous rainfall flooded Accra affecting more than 50,000 people and produced a leakage at a filling station that resulted in 150 casualties. Property and livelihoods were also washed away. This event did not only highlight the exposure of the city to floods; it also revealed a weak emergency response capacity at the city level. We cannot continue this way. We will need to work with our development partners to fill in technical and financial gaps. But more importantly, every resident has a part to play in making the city more resilient.

There has been an ongoing discussion among stakeholders - Government, the World Bank and community leaders - following the completion of an engagement process that examined the level of resilience of our capital to the stresses and shocks that it experiences. The assessment on strengthening urban resilience in Accra was commissioned jointly by the Ministry of Environment, Science and Technology and Innovation, and the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development. The summary report was put together by the World Bank and it makes for very interesting reading. It's informative and instructive and reflects important recommendations on how to build a resilient Greater Accra Region(GAR).  

  1. Improving Planning and coordination in GAR

Comprised of 16 Local Authorities (2 metropolitan assemblies, 9 municipal assemblies and 5 district assemblies), from Weija in the west to Ada in the east, the GAR keeps expanding and is 90% urbanized. These days it is hard to point at the Region’s borders. Rapid urbanization has been accompanied by an urban expansion and population growth. However, this has not been matched with comprehensive city planning, infrastructure and basic services. Since Accra has not been planned in advance, the city experiences an increasingly chaotic, sprawling mass of land featuring slums and informal settlements with people who are willing to live in dire conditions just to be close to opportunities to prosper. Is it any surprise that we now create a Ministry of Inner City and Zongo and Development? I hope this Ministry becomes obsolete soon because it means that we were successful at ensuring that everyone has better access to housing, basic service and infrastructure. Slums cannot be a permanent feature of our cities.

Another problem is in coordination among the 16 local government authorities. The way these assemblies currently operate, a problem in a different Metropolitan, Municipal and District Assembly (MMDA) doesn't necessarily require any action from other assemblies, despite being part of the same region. However, the interjurisdictional nature of items such as basic services, which go through many MMDAs, calls for close coordination among assemblies. A problem in drainage, which contributed to the deadly floods in 2015, for example, impacted multiple MMDAs and had economic repercussions across GAR.

Without coordination among MMDAs, it will be difficult to prepare plans that are sensitive to the needs of contiguous areas. The absence of coordinated and integrated planning results in chaos. I witnessed some parts of Accra where flooding impacted due to lack of coordination; One local authority completed its part of the drainage, but the neighbouring one hasn't done, which resulted in flooding. We have good policies in place to make our city region resilient such as the National Urban Policy, but we need to focus on implementation and coordination.

Improved metropolitan planning and coordination will make our city a better living place for all. Ghana has many blueprints for development that need to be effectively implemented. The lack of capacity and resources is one of major challenges at local, regional and national levels.

  1. Integrating Flood and Coastal Management

There have been calls for a comprehensive and holistic approach to flood management. This entails several interventions such as the mapping and demarcating of flood plains and buffer zones of drainage channels to improve drainage and flood control. Floods occur in certain specific places in addition to wherever else they occur. Surely, we can prepare for this to avoid the usual disastrous consequences. The solution often involves interventions from various agencies with related responsibilities. Addressing drainage issues, for example, involves the Ghana Highway Authority, the Department of Urban Roads, the Department of Feeder Roads and the Hydrological Services Department whilst maintenance is a function of the assemblies.

The problem of floods in our cities is made even worse by the fact that many of our drains are clogged with refuse which has not been collected and disposed of properly. It's a vicious circle - the cause is the effect and the effect is the cause. People need to realize that discarding waste in drains can intensify flooding. Our assemblies need to embark on public education campaigns on this matter as a minimum in the period leading up to the raining season. They also need to step up efforts at providing communities with well-engineered and appropriate waste transfer stations and disposal sites.

There is also the subject of climate change. The impact of climate change cannot be underestimated, we need to take the issue seriously and do something about it. Sea level rise, coastal erosion and storm surges are on the increase. Climate change effects on temperature and rainfall patterns will exacerbate the intensity and frequency of floods and increase the number of catastrophic events if we don't take action now. Cities like Takoradi are already under threat.

Flooding doesn't have to be a way of life. We don't need to lose precious lives on an annual basis as though it were inevitable. There is much we can do to forestall these crises; a crisis that has a particularly devastating effect on the least prepared and most vulnerable.

  1. Enhancing Resilience in Vulnerable Communities

Rapid unplanned urbanization has resulted in creating some vulnerable communities within our city. They are the most affected during natural and man-made disasters. Places like Alajo and Nima in Accra which lack access to basic services and infrastructure and which are often found located in low lying areas and susceptible to floods. There are also places like Old fadama where people live in the most appalling conditions.

Going around affected areas of Accra after the floods in June, I witnessed the pain and suffering from flood-affected families who had lost everything, including children due to the raging water. Flimsy wooden structures that provide "accommodation" for many poor families were no match for the force of the flood waters. Because many communities have no toilet facilities, the floods had carried human excreta from the gutters onto the streets. Even now after two years of the flooding, there are still many traders and food sellers that have not recovered from the damages.

It is high time to enhance resilience in vulnerable communities. Government needs to quickly identify all the vulnerable settlements across the GAR and invest in them. It needs to develop and implement a comprehensive slum upgrading and redevelopment strategy as part of the existing development plans.

  1. Improving Disaster preparedness and Response

Emergency and relief services have been limited because the assemblies do not have the capacity to act proactively. The National Disaster Management Organization can provide palliative support. The real efforts should come from the assemblies, many of which should focus on prevention and early warning systems including systematic data collection of hazards at the community level. Assemblies also need contingency funding; dedicated budget and adequate staff and equipment will be key to appropriate preparedness and adequate response. Not only flooding, but fires are also becoming frequent. Do we have adequate firefighting equipment? And when we do, do we have water? Can we respond adequately to fires that occur in tall buildings?

It is essential to have a good understanding of the risks facing our cities. Some communities, that received early warning of the potential disaster such as heavy rains, took the initiative to clean their drains, so the effect of the floods was minimal. Once people have a good understanding of the risks they face, it is possible to galvanize them into action. We need a comprehensive and detailed risk assessment profile for each region. Data needs to be collected regularly by the assemblies to make sure that strategies are up to date. The information gathered can guide initiatives on preparedness, including strengthened early warning systems, especially for the most poor and vulnerable.

There is much to do if we really want to make Accra resilient. Currently much work is underway and we should intensify it. Drainage works are taking place in several localities, reducing the flooding risks. There is also a hope that comprehensive and collective efforts from 16 MMDAs will improve city infrastructure through long-term engineering and integrated plans and minimize the crisis that the city faces. Public education campaigns on promoting a clean and safe city is also crucial, for example the introduction of a national sanitation day. With constant education and advocacy, we are bound to see good changes.

There is hope for Accra to become one of Africa's cleanest and resilient cities. This requires all hands-on deck.