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OPINION: African floods: Rain dividends can stop future drought crises

by Simon Missiri | IFRC
Monday, 25 November 2019 14:00 GMT

A girl walks in water after heavy rains and floods forced hundreds of thousands of people to leave their homes, in the town of Pibor, Boma state, South Sudan, November 6, 2019.Picture taken November 6, 2019. REUTERS/Andreea Campeanu

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The cycle of droughts and floods is likely to continue; we need to prepare for it and make it work for those at risk

Simon Missiri, IFRC’s Regional Director for Africa a.i. and Special Advisor to the Secretary General

Since June, more than 2.5 million people have faced flooding disasters across Africa. Some of the hardest hit countries include Kenya, the Republic of the Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Niger, Ghana, Cameroon, Tanzania and the Central African Republic.

The most recent disaster happened in Kenya on 23 November, when unusually heavy rains killed dozens.

Many of the communities in these countries are in double jeopardy, as drought and floods are affecting them at the same time. In Somalia, families that were still experiencing the impact of a debilitating drought early this year, were recently watching their homes, crops and livestock getting washed away from heavy rains that have sparked widescale flooding.

It’s a recurrent vicious cycle spanning decades, and we need to act before the bleak scenarios put forward by experts increasingly become inevitable, including the complete inability of these communities to cope with this destructive cycle of drought and flooding.

While we are gradually teetering on the edge of a worrying scenario, there is a silver lining to these recurrent violent rains: we can take advantage of them to protect communities from the next drought.

There are three simple ways in which it is possible to break this destructive drought-flood cycle.

Firstly, disaster preparedness cannot be overstated. While we cannot entirely prevent floods and droughts, with better preparedness, we can reduce their impact dramatically. A recent report by IFRC, "The Cost of Doing Nothing", estimates that, by 2030, the funding requirement to support everyone who needs assistance after climate-related disasters could balloon to $20 billion per year. However, the same IFRC report estimates that with determined and ambitious action, the number of people in need of humanitarian assistance as a result of climate-related disasters annually could also decrease by 90 per cent by 2050. 

Secondly, we need to rethink and redouble our efforts in water storage and rain harvesting. Communities across East Africa have collected rainwater using traditional reservoirs for decades. Typical water harvesting methods include berkads in Somalia and birkas in Ethiopia, which are low-tech water reservoirs used in arid areas to collect water during the wet season for future use. Red Cross and Red Crescent teams in Ethiopia and Somalia have been working to ensure that water in berkads and birkas is safe for consumption. During the 2017-2018 drought, Red Crescent teams helped over 8000 families in Somalia to rehabilitate 95 berkads. There are other simple methods such as using water tanks to harvest roof water. For families whose homes have roofs designed to harvest water, this approach is very affordable and effective. A 10,000-litre tank can help a family of six transition safely from one rainy season to the next. These local solutions are not new, but with investment, they can be upgraded and introduced to places where they didn’t exist before.

Finally, if we are to turn flood waters into something useful, we first need to mitigate their potentially destructive nature by routing their flow efficiently while simultaneously preserving the water for use during dry spells. Where applicable, and in accordance with the local context, governments should invest more in flood control methods, including the construction of dams, diversion canals or channels. There is also a need to ensure that the drainage systems are well maintained.

It’s time for stakeholders to invest in solutions we know can work. Better disaster preparedness, water flow control techniques, adaptive agriculture, and more efficient methods of collecting and storing water can all help turn the threat of flooding into an economic and agricultural boon for millions of people. The cycle of droughts and floods is likely to continue; we need to prepare for it and make it work for those at risk.