Dire Effects of West Africa’s Yearly Floods

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Climate Adaptation West African floods taking away lives and livelihood

Yearly floods in the capital and major cities in West Africa are causing misery to its residents – claiming lives, damaging infrastructure and properties, and creating gridlock. Heavy rains have significantly increased in the past 30 years.

A study by Christopher Taylor of the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and his co-authors found that afternoon rainstorms in deforested parts of coastal west Africa have doubled in frequency compared to 30 years ago. Still, in forested areas, the frequency only increased by a third. 

The most inundated places are those coastal cities that are highly deforested, such as Freetown and Monrovia, but even inland areas are not spared. Recent floods in Chad impacted around 340,000 people.  

West Africa’s regular flooding should not be solely blamed on these heavier rains because unplanned urbanisation also has a role to play in it.

With rapid urbanisation, builders neglect to provide sufficient drainage even as vast areas are overlaid with concrete, making it harder for water to seep into the soils. And as people flock into cities from rural areas, the few functioning drainages are quickly clogged and overwhelmed.

According to The Economist article “Every year heavy rain brings misery and gridlock to west Africa“, city dwellers, particularly informal settlers, built their houses in flood-prone areas, some in protected forest reserves and wetlands.

“Untrammelled development is damaging urban forests and wetlands, too. Ordinarily, they should help soak up water and reduce floods. In Freetown, some residents built on a hillside in a protected forest reserve, destabilising the soil. In 2017 it collapsed after three days of rain, killing more than 1,100 people. In Ghana, developers have encroached on perhaps 40% of the internationally recognised wetlands, including some protecting Accra, the capital.”

The article notes that floods result in significant economic and human losses. The poorest and informal settlers are always the most brutal hit, with the flood taking away what little they have.

A study conducted in Senegal showed that families harmed by natural disasters have a 25% chance of falling into poverty.  

Despite the frequent calamity, these West African cities endure, residents feel that their governments have done little to improve the situation. In 2012 Senegal’s President Macky Sall announced a $1.4bn ten-year flood-prevention plan after the city experienced severe flooding. The government constructed 43 pumping stations and added new drainage canals, which helped some areas in Dakar. However, the people had doubts about where the bulk of the budget went. Many were unimpressed with the government’s efforts as people continued to suffer yearly from the floods.

Deforestation is a known culprit of rainwater runoff and mudslides in African coastal cities. Combined with the increasing storm activity in coastal areas, it heightens the risk of floods. What happened in Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, in August 2017 is an example wherein 1100 people died due to inundation. Removal of the vast areas of woodland has also worsened the effects of climate change in the regions, including Guinea, Sierra Leone, Libera, Ivory Coast, Ghana and Nigeria.

Unplanned urban development, especially in flood-risk areas, also exacerbates the effects of climate change and deforestation.

According to Africa at LSE blog, “How policy can address frequent flooding in African coastal cities“, government policy can address these threats. The article explains further that policy response should embrace well-designed adaptation and mitigation strategies involving various stakeholders.

These actions include collaborating across sectors at all levels of government and down to community groups that affect the most vulnerable members of society, implementing effective land-use planning, investing in critical infrastructure, adopting nature-based solutions, and intensifying the level of flood awareness, Africa at LSE blog post mentions.


The images used in creating the composite featured image were taken from the following sources:

  • (Photo with African girl)
  • (UNHCR)

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