In the last four weeks, Hurricanes Irma and Harvey have flooded their way into world news. The death toll from Irma has reached 22 and counting and Harvey is believed to have caused $75 billion dollars worth of damage in Houston.
Nigeria's disaster management system is a disaster in itself
How confident would you be if you learned that a hurricane, let’s name it “Hurricane Bayo”, was headed for Lagos by tomorrow morning?
Both natural disasters point to the effects of climate change; and while it may have had to prove itself, literally, global warming is no longer something we hear - nowadays, it’s there to see.
As Stevie Wonder said on the “Hand to Hand” Initiative hosted by American musicians for people affected by Hurricane Harvey in Houston, “Any one who tells you that global warming is not real, is either unintelligent or a liar”.
Away from this, not many people alive have witnessed a natural disaster within Nigeria but all that is changing.
Seismologists (people who study the earth) have thought of Nigeria as aseismic, meaning earthquake free for a long time but recently, earth tremors have occurred.
Heavy rains this year and the Benue floods which have displaced over 100,000 people have shown that global warming can no longer be treated from afar with intrigue, like a white people problem.
As things stand, the best option would be to borrow from a post-apocalyptic movie and move the entire world’s population to higher ground or a satellite colony.
In the absence of any such plans, our measures against and reaction to these natural disasters will determine how we fare as the world changes around us.
In Nigeria, the National Emergency Management Agency coordinates disaster research, informs governments and the public on disaster trends and directs all disaster response efforts.
NEMA is nearly 2 decades old, but unlike the typical Nigerian government body that has mismanaged and abandoned to be throwbacks of themselves, the agency has become a high priority in recent years.
Nothing has inspired this more than the spread of Boko Haram and the carnage and displaced people left in their wake.
At the moment, NEMA’s primary charge for the four years of Boko Haram’s resurgence has been to manage the welfare of internally displaced people in the North and the initiative’s aimed at helping them.
All things being equal, this should take nothing away from its capacity; the agency has zonal offices in the seven geopolitical zones as well as two operations offices in Gombe and Abuja.
But judging by NEMA’s lethargic response to the flooding in Benue, there will be very little left to salvage if a hurricane of Irma’s scale was to drop by the coast of Nigeria.
It took the agency five days and an executive directive from President Buhari to acknowledge the devastation in Benue.
In the aftermath of the floods, the agency is required to provide first-response services, distribute emergency relief materials to victims and assist in the rehabilitation of the victims where necessary.
Instead, according to Sueddie Agema who works with Gender and Environmental Risk Reduction Initiative in Makurdi, local groups and individuals had to rise up to circumstance and respond to the victims of the flood.
He said, “SEMA was somewhat slow in its reaction. It was the civil society organisations, Benue NGO Network (BENGONET), NGOs like Red Cross, UNHCR and private individuals that jumped to the rescue. By the time SEMA came through, a lot was happening already.”
One of NEMA’s main policies, on paper, is contingency stockpiling. To ensure that it responds effectively to disasters, the agency has warehouses in all zonal offices and operations rooms, stocked with relief and rehabilitation materials.
The late Gani Fawehinmi would have had a hard time convincing the people of Benue that any of these things exist.
In the days after the floods, victims scavenged to create emergency sheds for shelter, until relief organisations, on the strength of contributions from sympathetic Nigerians, provided mosquito nets and mattresses.
While officials of NEMA declared that trucks of relief materials and food were on their way, nearly a week after the flooding broke the news, the victims were still hoping like followers of a promised Messiah.
Natural disasters are near impossible to prevent, so how a community or country prepares and responds usually determine the gravity of the damage in the long term.
Yet, as climate change knocks on the Seme border, it is clear that Nigeria’s emergency response and management services are little more than a construct of bureaucracy and languor.
What would happen if a hurricane, let’s name it “HurricaneBayo” was headed for Lagos along a path that leads it through the Middle Belt to the North-East?
Even though it is NEMA’s duty to inform the public, more often than not, that never happens. The agency has a Geographic Information System, along with a Mission Control Centre that collects and analyses data to aid its early warning and response to disasters.
But as victims of floods in Lagos and Benue will tell anyone, these warnings never come. Until the disaster hits, no-one knows they need to prepare for a situation.
The obvious next step would be to evacuate anyone in harm’s way.
NEMA’s typical lack of urgency does not inspire any confidence on this front; especially as evacuating and relocating tens or hundreds of thousands of people takes organisation and capable personnel. Both are in short supply.
The same factors will hinder the response to the disaster as they did in Benue where in the absence of any relief materials, victims of the floods had people cook and bring the food to them.
“Let it be on record that the government is doing next to nothing for these people. Only individuals and civil society organisations have taken the burden upon themselves to cater to these guys.”, said Collins Uma, a resident of Markurdi unaffected by the floods, in the days after.
As the world begins to prepare for extreme weather conditions, Nigeria’s best chance lies in the individuals and communities who have supported the people of Benue, in the absence of agencies created for that purpose.
When it became apparent that the Benue floods were becoming a humanitarian disaster, many commendable Nigerians, both home and without, created initiatives and raised funds to provide food and relief materials to the victims.
Where nature throws another fit, Nigeria will need initiatives like these to fill the gap that the government has left exposed.
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For all its woes, NEMA does have some small wins. At the present, albeit years after the fact, the agency is distributing food and relief materials to Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Nasarawa.
But compared to what will definitely come, that is not nearly enough.
NEMA has announced that several dams will be opened, making it nearly certain that several states will be flooded in the coming months.
If warnings like this are followed with strong sensitization and practical efforts to reduce the amount of damage to the minimum, then we might have a chance.
At the moment, there is nothing to give that impression.
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