By Elias Ntungwe Ngalame
YAOUNDE (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As this year’s rainy season gathers momentum, authorities in Cameroon and Nigeria fear a repeat of the 2012 crisis when waterways burst their banks and devastated entire villages, killing some 180 people across the north of both countries.
As a result of last year’s disaster, the two West African nations have resolved to cooperate on building new flood-control structures, sharing weather information and relocating people from flood-prone areas in an effort to avoid further losses.
“The Cameroon government and her Nigerian neighbour have engaged in a united effort through a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) established by a joint team of water management experts from both countries to take measures to forestall the flood calamities that occurred last year,” Cameroon’s prime minister announced after meeting Nigeria’s minister of water resources, Sara Reng Ochekpe, on July 26 in Yaounde.
The move came after a gathering of experts on water resources and electricity generation in the trans-boundary Benue River Basin in the same week. All stressed the urgent need to work together to manage the shared basin, in order to minimise the risks of flooding.
“Cameroon has to collaborate with us to avoid the same flood challenge we had last year. We need adequate preventive measures because climate change impacts are very unpredictable,” Nigerian minister Ochekpe told journalists.
Meteorologists said the torrential rains of July and August 2012 - which destroyed farmland and infrastructure, and displaced thousands of people – were probably the heaviest seen in the region in half a century.
The government in Cameroon put the death toll there at over 40, but in Nigeria, casualties were higher at 137, according to the Nigeria Red Cross.
The rainy season usually begins in June or July and peaks in September.
The poor management of shared water resources by governments in the region came in for criticism as Cameroon, Nigeria and Chad traded accusations over who had aggravated the disaster. Cameroon, in particular, was slammed for releasing large amounts of water from its Lagdo Dam.
“While Nigeria blamed Cameroon for the disaster, Cameroon in turn blamed Chad for unilaterally raising the dike along the banks of the trans-boundary River Logone, prolonging it for several kilometres and causing excess water flow from heavy rains into the Lagdo Dam. At a certain point the dam could no longer contain the excess water and broke down, discharging water into the River Benue that runs through northern Nigerian territory,” Isaac Njillah, an environment and disaster management lecturer at the University of Yaounde 1, told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The fledgling cooperation between Cameroon and Nigeria is intended to avoid such misunderstandings in future.
The two countries have agreed to build more water monitoring and control structures on the tributaries of the Benue, as well as to establish a framework for the exchange of hydro-meteorological and environmental data. They will carry out joint technical site visits, studies and research, and set up an early warning and response mechanism.
“We have also agreed to ask those living in areas vulnerable to floods to stay away from submerged areas, or to forcefully eject those who do not leave. Another option is to intensify administrative partnership and collaboration,” said Ottou Wilson, the governor of Cameroon’s North Region.
Cooperation in the area of water resources should take into account the Niger Basin Authority Water Charter, the MoU said. The two countries will also collaborate on the management and development of the trans-boundary river basin, with the details worked out by a joint committee of experts.
With regard to the Lagdo hydro-electric dam, a stronger framework will be put in place to share information on water release from the dam. The need for the Nigerian side to build a corresponding structure, or dam, to regulate the flow of water on the River Benue was also emphasised.
NEW MONITORING EQUIPMENT
Cameroon said the Japanese government will donate equipment to facilitate the recording of quality meteorological data which is needed to prevent flood disasters.
“We have started reinforcing and re-equipping the over 300 meteorological centres throughout the country, many of which were not functional for lack of finances to replace obsolete equipment,” Cameroon’s minister of water and energy, Basil Atangana Kouna, told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Other international donors are also helping Cameroon with measures to prevent deadly floods in the Far North. In June, the World Bank approved a $108 million grant to support efforts to rehabilitate embankments, dams and irrigation systems and improve disaster preparedness in that area.
“Northern Cameroon is characterised by high poverty levels, and it is also highly vulnerable to natural disasters and climate shocks, including frequent droughts and floods,” Gregor Binkert, the World Bank country director for Cameroon, said in a statement.
“In addition to rehabilitating damaged water infrastructure, these funds will help restore the area’s rice production, and provide food and income for the farmers living in the area,” the statement added.
Environment and weather experts say the new assistance will revive weather monitoring activities, which have come to a standstill in most centres due to outdated equipment, as well as maintaining dams in a reasonable state.
“Weather monitoring stations are of cardinal importance in the production of relevant and timely data. The excessive rains and subsequent floods in the Northern Region in 2012 could have been avoided if we had had modern and well-equipped meteorological centres...and a policy to regularly rehabilitate the dam,” Njillah said.
He urged Cameroon and Nigeria to look at using satellites to monitor weather and climate patterns and longer-term trends.