After floods: Lessons from Mepe

Between September 15, 2023, and October 30, 2023, the Volta River Authority (VRA) operators of the Akosombo Dam were forced to open the spillways due to large amounts of rainfall on the Volta Lake and its basin. 

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The rapid rise in the water level behind the dam could have led to dam failure, which would have led to the loss of life of millions of Ghanaians and the destruction of infrastructure that would have cost billions of cedis to replace.

 The spillage led to extensive floods in the Lower Volta Basin.

One of the hardest-hit communities the floods affected was Mepe, in the North Tongu District.

Given the changing weather patterns, it should be expected that such flooding will be a recurring event in the future, not just in Mepe, but in all flood-prone areas in and around the Volta Lake, the Kpong Head Pond and the Keta Lagoon.

The question we need to answer is: “How can we reduce the impacts of such disasters by deliberate and evidence-based mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery actions?”

To do this effectively, we must unpack the manifold and pervasive impacts of the Mepe flood event.

Landscape

The most obvious of these impacts is on the landscape.

The flooding significantly affected the physical terrain and natural drainage patterns, drowning once-fertile agricultural lands and disturbing vegetation along the riparian zones. 

The devastation in the riparian areas means the destruction of vital habitats that are important to biodiversity and creates imbalances in ecological systems.

When land is flooded, waterlogging and silt deposition are likely to have long-term effects on soil quality, rendering land unfit for farming in the short term.

Soil nutrient loss and degradation could hamper agricultural output, threatening the long-term sustainability of livelihoods and food security.

Freshwater

The impact on terrestrial and freshwater life includes species displacement and ecological disruption.

 In the aquatic environment, sedimentation and water contamination disturb commercial fish species' breeding and nursery areas.

The physical damage to the thriving cage and pen aquaculture infrastructure in the lower Volta caused thousands of farmed tilapias to be released into the river, with the risk of spreading diseases in the wild tilapia population.

Infrastructure

The flooding also damaged key infrastructure such as roads, isolating communities while preventing access and hampering emergency responses.

The floods also exposed deficiencies in road construction, such as poor compaction of roads, the inadequacies of culverts and poor road surfacing.

Some ECG substations were flooded, so energy supply systems were interrupted, which then caused water treatment plans to shut down, disrupting the delivery of crucial services and facilities.

Disruption in healthcare services and facilities, for example, exacerbates the risks of disease outbreaks and hinders timely medical assistance for affected populations.

Losses

Many indigenes of Mepe are farmers; the flooding of crops and loss of livestock has resulted in severe economic losses and future food security challenges.

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Home and small business owners and entrepreneurs have lost all their stock and assets, meaning they must now find capital to restart their businesses.

Without income, the population has cascading vulnerabilities, such as the ability to find food to eat, pay school fees and access health services.

Stagnant

Floods result in stagnant water, contaminated wells and boreholes.

These lead to increased water-related diseases with increased risks of infections, diarrheal diseases and the spread of vector-borne ailments.

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Due to the contamination of the water, any open cuts or wounds in contact with the floodwaters have safety concerns and increased health risks.

The loss of property and the loss of income can also trigger post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in some of the affected people, with the potential to lead to mental health challenges such as anxiety and depression among flood survivors.

The most severe loss is the disruption of the education of the children and youth, as the class time that has been lost can never be replaced. The flooding forced children out of school, impeding their learning and educational progress.

This intermission may have lasting effects on the academic progress of affected students.

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Damage to teacher residences affected the availability of educators in the communities, posing challenges for teachers to continue delivering education effectively.

There has been flood-induced damage to schoolbooks and educational materials, which will hinder continuous learning and educational support for affected children.

Repurposing schools as safe havens during the flooding disrupted their primary function of providing education, affecting the regular functioning of educational institutions.

The flooding also led to the loss of students' records, complicating the tracking of academic progress and achievements and hindering the continuity of education.

Preparedness

So, how can we reduce the impacts of such disasters by deliberate and evidence-based mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery actions?

There are short and long-term solutions. In the short term, all district assemblies in flood-prone areas must have contingency plans that include immediate services for emergency sanitation facilities and clean drinking water to mitigate health risks associated with contaminated water immediately.

There will always be a need for immediate food aid and nutrition support to address the ongoing food security challenges among vulnerable populations affected by the flood.

On our visit to Mepe, we saw people donating sugary drinks and biscuits (the so-called empty calories) to displaced persons — they would have been better served with more substantive staples.

Flood-displaced people need temporary shelters and healthcare facilities to provide immediate relief and support.

In addition, public health campaigns must be carried out to highlight measures to minimise health risks, raise awareness, and address immediate health concerns among affected communities.

Service providers must have plans for expedited infrastructure repair, such as roads and essential services, to restore connectivity and critical amenities, ensuring swift access for affected populations.

In the long term, flood-prone districts must conduct comprehensive district-level environmental assessments to guide land-use planning for sustained recovery and ecosystem restoration following the flood.

All new and existing infrastructure needs to be climate proofed. 

The Business As Usual (BAU) approach will not work — we need to build back better. 

We must implement measures to enhance infrastructure resilience, minimise future flood-related damage and ensure better preparedness for similar events. 

We need to invest in developing climate-proofed healthcare infrastructure to enhance public health outcomes and better prepare for future health crises.

Given that climate-driven disasters in Ghana are predicted to increase in frequency and intensity and our dependence on agriculture, we must promote climate-smart agricultural practices and alternative income-generating activities to foster long-term community resilience and economic stability.

Mepe is a wake-up call, let us learn from this unfortunate event for a better future for the whole of Ghana.

The writers are the Founding Director & PhD Environmental Science Student, Institute for Environment and Sanitation Studies, University of Ghana.

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