Published On: Tue, Sep 12th, 2017

Messy handling of Benue floods

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Floods kill 18, destroy 6,637 housesTo say that all of Benue state, in Nigeria’s north central zone, is under water is not an exaggeration. As at the weekend, 22 of the state’s 23 local government areas were contending with floodwaters. Reports say that, so far, over 100,000 persons have been displaced from their homes in the state capital alone. This figure is bound to rise because the rains are getting heavier by the week, and humanitarian help has not been commensurate with the level of the tragedy.

Video clips of the floods showed a state, and country, unprepared for a tragedy that was waiting to happen. Sleepy residents of Makurdi, the Benue state capital, were captured on camera, walking through floodwaters, clutching pieces of drenched furniture, cooking pots and what bags of foodstuffs they were able to salvage from the rising water.

However, it should not have been so. If we know the topography of Benue state well, nobody should be told that it is prone to flooding. The state is situated in the trough of the Benue river from which it derives its name, and its tributaries including Gamana or Katsina Ala. The fertile flood plains created by these rivers are what make people refer to the state as Nigeria’s “food basket”. Ironically, when the weather turns inclement, as it has this year, the harvest is not that of crop but one of immense destruction and loss of lives.

Besides our familiarity with the state geography, which should put the state government on red alert, weathermen had warned of unprecented floods this year. This followed a statement by the Nigerian Meteorological Agency listing 30 states as those likely to experience floods with the onset of rain late July. Humanitarian agencies followed up with sensitization campaigns, urging people in the lowlands to relocate before the arrival of the floods; it was not a question of whether the floods would come but when. Still, when the heavens opened up and River Benue overflowed its banks, the state government and residents reacted as if taken offguard.

There were no ready camps to receive the increasing flow of IDPs ((internally displaced persons). It was at the heart of the tragedy that the state, as an after thought, converted the uncompleted international market in Makurdi to a refugee camp. Not originally meant for that purpose, it lacks power, water and public conveniences. The problem here is that if death does not come directly from the floods, it is sure to come from an epidemic, something which congestion in the camp portends.

It was against this background that President Muhammadu Buhari, last week, directed the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) to send help to the flood victims in Benue. The president assured that he would personally monitor how NEMA carries out the task. Lamentably, the reports we are getting speak of quarrels between NEMA staff and local aid groups that have stepped up to fill a gap created by official inaction. A role conflict isn’t what the flood victims want to see, but concerted efforts to alleviate their immediate plight and eventual rehabilitation when the floods will have receded.

We deplore the government’s tardy response to what is clearly a perennial problem. It is a criminal dereliction of duty. This is in sharp contrast to the prompt, wholehearted response of the United States federal government to similar floods in the state of Texas. President Donald Trump and his wife flew down to supervise the rescue work.

Back home, we want to commend neighbouring state governments, wealthy individuals, local and international aid groups that have contributed relief materials, money and medical teams to give succour to the Benue flood victims. We give the thumbs up to this flow of ‘milk of human kindness’. We hope and pray that today’s Benue will not become a recurring decimal in our national life.

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