DEBATES over what caused flooding that has displaced more than two million people in some parts of northern Nigeria have assumed more importance than rescue operations to ameliorate the suffering of those affected.

Officials of the Challawa and Tiga dams have denied that the opening of their flood gates – an annual ritual to empty the dams when they over fill – was responsible for flooding more than 5,000 villages and farm lands. Residents have sought refuge on higher ground.

Heavy rains prompt authorities in Kano State, where the dams are, to open them to prevent overflowing. It is an annual procedure during the rainy season. There are claims that unexpected heavy rainfall this year caused more water to be released.

Weather forecasts for the north had predicted low rains and possible drought. The meteorological agency had warned that more than 12 million people in the region could face food shortages from the drought.

Jigawa State, which shares borders with Niger Republic, bears the brunt of the flooding. Adamu Babale, head of the Nigerian Red Cross in Jigawa described the situation as catastrophic, estimating that at least 350,000 houses have been destroyed by the floods and about 90,000 hectares of farm land washed away.

“We have estimated that close to two million people have been affected,” he said. The water level had gone down, but some villages remained submerged, with water up to the roofs in some parts and some villagers using canoes.

The food scarcity the meteorological agency predicted may still occur for a different reason – large hectares of maize, millet and rice planted beside the rivers have been washed away. Umar Kyari, a spokesman for the Jigawa State governor, estimated losses at N4.5 billion. He blamed the flooding on the decision to open floodgates in Kano State. He said the incident was not new, but that he had expected the dam authorities to take measures to protect residents in low-lying areas.

“The Jigawa State is appealing to the federal government to hand over administration of these waters to the affected States of Kano, Jigawa, Bauchi, Yobe and Borno,” Kyari said.
Sokoto is another State hit by severe flooding. Doctors Without Borders aid group said about 40,000 people were displaced in northern Sokoto after a dam burst earlier this month. About 40 people reportedly died from the incident.

Entire villages were submerged.
The disputes over what caused the flooding are not as important as getting relief to the affected, clearing the floods and re-settling the displaced. Adequate measures to forestall further flooding would be important.

A first step would be a thorough study of the state of the dams in the country. Most of them were built more than three decades ago. Maintenance has been minimal. Sometimes, rivers overflowing from heavy rains break down some dams, a statement on their state. Dams are built to hold excess water from the rivers, so that it could be used for irrigation in case of drought.

Certain fundamental changes have also taken place around the location of the dams in the last 30 years. With increasing drought in some parts of the north, more people have been drawn to the river banks that feed the dams where they are sure of water for themselves, their farms, livestock and they can engage in fishing.

River banks are the only areas where there is guaranteed water for sustenance of these villagers. Water from the dams is used to supplement supplies when the rivers prove inadequate.

Population growth has also altered demography of the areas round the rivers. In earlier years, the dams could be de-flooded without much impact on the low-lying areas which were then mostly uninhabited. The authorities still empty the dams, when they over-fill, in the same way they did decades ago. There is little consideration for the changes in the surrounding areas, resulting in annual flooding, with varying degrees of disaster.

The Federal Government and the affected States need to do something more fundamental than the annual lamentation and blame sharing. It starts with a decision that the lives of the affected is important, and that it is the duty of governments to guarantee their safety from avoidable disasters like flooding from dams

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