THE HORIZON By Kayode Komolafe
Can it now be safely said in respect of the thousands who are in distress as result of the flood disasters across the country that help is on the way from Abuja? Although it was late in coming, President Goodluck Jonathan’s broadcast yesterday morning essentially acknowledged that the devastation caused by the floods has reached the proportion of a national emergency. The magnitude of the disaster is such that hundreds of lives have been reportedly lost and hundreds of thousands are socially dislocated. Communities that were on land a few weeks ago are now under water. In fact, this newspaper reported two days ago that the Otuoke home of the President is part of the 90% of Bayelsa State submerged by flood. Houses and farms have been washed away and there are credible fears of looming epidemics because of water pollution. According to experts, this is the worst flooding in 50 years nationally. Now, if this situation is not a national emergency, you wonder what else should happen before such a declaration could be made.
It must, of course, be duly acknowledged that swift responses to the disasters have come from respective state governments and federal agencies. State governments have speedily set camps for the homeless and the starving. The nation has been treated to spectacles of state governors paddling canoes to access flooded areas. Some persons who were landlords last week are now exposed to the elements just like vagrants. Non-governmental organisations and some individuals have commendably risen to the occasion to provide succour for the displaced. For instance, the industrialist, Alhaji Aliko Dangote, through his Foundation has donated a total of N430 million to flood victims in Kogi State in relief materials and cash
However, all these laudable efforts at mitigating the effects of the disasters could not be a substitute to the sense of national purpose and seriousness embodied in the response announced by the President yesterday. The President had some cheery news those who are desperately in need of help: Funds will now be made available. At least, N17.6 billion is to be shared by states and federal ministries and agencies to deal with consequences of the floods. The President and his deputy will now visit some of the places where floods have wreaked havoc in a gesture of sympathy with the victims. Committees have been set up to raise funds and provide reliefs as a complement to the government’s response.
To be sure, it is significant that the government is galvanising the public response to the disaster. A national culture of showing compassion to those in distress should be developed in recognition of our common humanity. A society is less than humane when victims of disasters are routinely ignored by those in position to be of help. It is not often realised what a difference an amount of money that could buy a blanket or towel could make to the condition of a person rendered homeless. In fact, if some well-endowed members of the elite class could demonstrate one-tenth of the inexplicable passion they put on display when their European football clubs lose matches to the victims of flood disasters, there would be a lot of relief in the circumstance. The matter even becomes more shameful when reliefs come from abroad in the face of near indifference at home. It is not enough to watch television news of villages being washed off and crocodiles invading places that used to be living rooms few days ago; it is important that the horrifying stories should generate a sense of compassion towards the victims. Beside government, the public should also have a sense of emergency. In this respect, Jonathan has shown a measure of leadership with the gesture embodied in the broadcast.
However, there are issues thrown up by the unfolding disaster and the response to it. These issues should be properly interrogated so that due lessons could from the situation. First, the somewhat slow response from Abuja cannot be rationalised even on the ground that the Jonathan was awaiting the report of a technical committee assessing impact of the disaster. There is nothing that the so-called technical committee is doing that the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) could not have done if properly funded and equipped to perform its duty. After all, the mandate of NEMA spans the period before the disaster, during the disaster and the aftermath. Similarly, the federal ministry of environment ought to have been better positioned to do its work. There is no proof of the ministry’s preparedness for this emergency. The ministry shouldn’t have to wait for its share of the N17.6 billion emergency funds to be prepared for this year’s flood. It is certainly no more an emergency if it takes weeks before a nationally coordinated response could be put together. Again, we are reminded of the perennial question of how to make institutions work. If ministries and departments are imbued with the requisite capacity, every situation will not have to generate its own committee, whether technical or ceremonial!
Secondly, the metrological department predicted there would be floods in the states where disaster eventually happened. A policy interrogation is, therefore, necessary, to know why steps were not taken to minimise the impact of the flood especially where lives could have been saved. The helplessness displayed in the face of the flood is a proof that governments ignored the scientific prediction. The public should not be tired of asking the pertinent question: whatever happened to the ecological fund provided for in the revenue allocation formula?
Thirdly, this may not be last environmental disaster in the land. More floods have been predicted. The reality of climate change is here with us despite the denial in some quarters. Policies on environment should not be implemented as if we are living in denial of climate change. The government should gird its loins to face challenge of the environment. The health, security and socio-economic implications of a failed environment strategy are immense. For instance, there are areas where buffer dams should be built. There are areas where massive drainage systems should be constructed. In some others channelization projects have been abandoned. All these ought to feature in the implementation of environmental policy.
Finally, beyond providing emergency funds and setting up committees, this tragic moment should be a wake-up call on what is to be done to the policy on the environment and its implementation.