From a low base, Africa is today the most rapidly urbanizing region in the world. This article discusses the dilemmas faced by African policymakers as they confront the economically and politically destabilizing process of urbanization, focusing on the emblematic case of flooding in Africa’s cities. As elsewhere in the world, urbanization has led to the rapid development of modern and prestigious structures above ground, in response to the transport, housing and business needs of the expanding populations. Viewed from above, African cities are visibly richer and more modern than a few decades ago. However, policy concern for the development of robust structures for sewage, water management and flood control has been less obvious. It would seem that “out of sight” has also meant “out of mind.”
In the past decade, floods have become ubiquitous features of Africa’s burgeoning cities. Cities are afflicted by the onslaught of flash floods, the informality of water, sanitation and sewage systems, and poor planning, including inadequate budgetary outlays to address them. The list of affected cities is too long to present in full here, but includes Abidjan, Accra, Dar es Salaam, Durban, Kampala, Lagos, Maputo, Nairobi, and Tunis. The challenge runs across the whole continent.
African newspapers are awash with stories of the havoc that a few hours of heavy rain inflict on transport systems in the central business districts and businesses on the periphery. Occasionally, they document government plans to confront the problem, but which are seldom implemented. No parts of the cities are spared from the effects of the incessant floods. Houses of parliament, in once exclusive parts of the cities are inundated, while sophisticated neighborhoods, including the diplomatic quarters on higher ground, are also affected, if by proxy. Floods wash away access roads to residences, as well as official and private vehicles, while sewage and other effluents are left exposed on the streets. Water sources are affected in most parts of the cities and the burden of waterborne diseases has risen markedly. Floods have a perverse equalizing tendency in that they bring economic life to a stop for all urban dwellers.
But the socio-economic impacts on the marginalized households and groups who find subsistence in the informal sector are often devastating. In the slums and at the fringes of the cities, floods tear away at the rude structures, the deluge carrying away beds, pans, pets, dwellings and sources of livelihood alike. Children swim with abandon in the brown lakes and gushing rivulets in their destroyed neighborhoods. Therefore, while it is broadly acknowledged that cities and urban areas will provide the socio-economic and technological backbone for Africa’s transformation, the pervasive floods and their impacts on feeble and ill-prepared plans and structures indicate that there are still serious gaps in the continent’s urbanization strategy. They must be addressed if the continent’s ambitious development plans such as those in Africa 2063 are to be realized.
The “Fire Next Time”
Writing about his beloved America, but from a Parisian exile, James Baldwin had entitled one of his books “Fire Next Time” drawing on an old spiritual from the African American community. The people, the spiritual went, had received adequate warning. God had sent floods and even locusts, which had destroyed crops and livelihoods, but they had not “listened” and failed to mend their ways. The song indicates that the only option left was to raise the severity of punishment. In the absence of discernible change in behavior, “fire” would be used as the last resort. In similar fashion, it is difficult to see how African cities would continue to prosper without changing their ways. They must stop focusing on vertical infrastructure and begin to pay serious attention to the economics of the underground—water, sewage and flash flood management systems—which are crucial for urban sustainability. As part of the “fire next time”, many African cities have seen a sharp increase in malaria infections, owing to the greater breeding opportunities for the parasites enabled by stagnant water in urban areas during the rainy season. The eruption of cholera epidemics is a constant danger.
Economics of the Underground
Africa’s capital cities were relatively small colonial outposts in the 1960s, in otherwise rural settings. By the 2000s they had transformed into megacities with millions of residents, but infrastructure provision has not coped. In spite of the explosion of construction work in African cities, in terms of roads, metro rail systems, bridges and new housing projects, there is less emphasis on water supply, and related underground infrastructures, including drainage, sewerage and sanitation systems.
In many cities, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, the urban populations have responded to the paucity of public infrastructure by devising coping mechanisms to meet their water and sewage service needs. These have included informal connections to water and sewage lines, use of plastic bags to dispose of human waste, and constructing makeshift sewage tanks. In the absence of good planning frameworks, such short-term private solutions tend to become the norm. Ultimately, they make the return to well-organized and well-funded infrastructure systems harder, not easier. Notably, the plastic bags mentioned above have blocked drainage systems and poisoned drinking water sources in many cities.
A key contribution of the African development debates of the 1960s was the importance of governments in the provision of public goods. The period of structural adjustment of the 1980s and 1990s distorted this view to some extent, but there seems to be a return in recent years to the cardinal role of governments as enablers in economic development. Notably, that governments need to take action and lead in policy formulation – that important issues, such as underground infrastructure development cannot be done on scale by the private sector alone. Moreover, gaps in service provision should not be left to fester as corrective measures in the future could be both difficult and costly.
However, the situation is not without hope and the progress made in recent years in cities like Abidjan, Addis Ababa, Lagos and Nairobi, with regard to infrastructure development, indicates that with focus and commitment much can be achieved. Recently, the planning authorities of Kampala, the Ugandan capital, announced a plan to banish flooding in all its districts, notably the low-lying areas, within three years. The news was as exciting as it was unbelievable. The flooding problems in African cities are deep-seated; this is a result of accumulated policy neglect, few resources, poor planning and inadequate sensitization of the populations. Stroke of the pen policies and standalone projects, of whatever size, might not be enough. Urban planning must become a serious concern, part and parcel of planning at the national level, with dedicated and well-resourced urban planning units. Moreover, policy research and technical analyses within government and at tertiary levels will be required to study the many contributing factors, including population pressure, climate change, degradation of catchment areas, the regulatory environment and its enforcement structures and urban tenure systems. It is also an area where learning from the experiences of other countries will be crucial. Governments will do well to give as much emphasis to underground infrastructure in urban areas as they are giving to above ground infrastructure today.
Steve Kayizzi-Mugerwa, Ph.D., Africa House Visiting Scholar
Steve Kayizzi-Mugerwa received his Ph.D. in Economics from Gothenburg University in Sweden in 1988 and became Associate Professor at the same university in 1994. He worked as a Senior Economist at the IMF in Washington, D.C., Project Director and Fellow at the World Institute for Development Economics Research (WIDER) of the United Nations University, Helsinki, and most recently as Director of Strategy, Director of Operations and Director of Research,respectively, at the African Development Bank (AfDB) in Tunis and Abidjan. His last post at the AfDB, which he left at the end of 2015, was Acting Chief Economist and Vice President. He has collaborated with many international and national institutions and has been an external examiner of doctoral students in Africa and in European countries.He has been a consultant for the Swedish International development agency, the World Bank, the OECD and the UNDP. He considers the policy dialogue which he undertook with government leaders from across Africa, during his years at the AfDB, as the height of his career, and is planning to write a book about these experiences.