Yaounde — Following severe flooding in the north of Cameroon, the country is being urged by the United Nations to take steps to reduce disaster risks in the face of extreme weather.
Three weeks of heavy rain in August in the North region caused the partial collapse of the Lagdo dam and the overflow of the Benue River, triggering deadly flooding in some 15 villages of both Cameroon and Nigeria.
According to UN reports, 30 people died and 60,000 were displaced in Cameroon's North and Far North regions, including 18,000 children, raising fears of disease outbreaks.
"For the moment we have concentrated on providing immediate rescue measures because of the vulnerability to epidemics like meningitis (and) cholera," said Charlotte Faty Ndiaye, coordinator of the UN system in Cameroon, at a press briefing in Yaounde.
Ndiaye announced $6 million in UN funding to provide emergency medication, clothing and food to the victims, as well as for rehabilitation of the flooded areas.
RELIEF NOT ENOUGH
"The Cameroon government has saved lives by relocating the flood victims, but more lives will be saved in the future if we all combine efforts to mitigate the effects of such extreme climate hazards," Ndiaye said. She added that the UN will support the government in repairing the dam, reinforcing dykes, and improving its disaster alarm system.
The government has budgeted 123 billion CFA francs ($245 million) to help those affected as well as for ongoing flood prevention measures, Issa Tchiroma Bakary, the communications minister, said at a press conference in Yaounde.
"The displaced victims have been relocated to a safer area in Pouss and are since receiving relief materials such as food items, clothing, treated mosquito nets and of course shelter, while some measures to ensure their children go to school have also been taken," said Tchiroma.
An uneasy calm pervaded the makeshift camp set up for displaced people at a primary school in Pouss. One of the victims, Mama Habsatou Abarkar, told state media that her community had lost everything including clothing for their children.
"Most of our children are suffering from diarrhoea, cold, catarrh, malaria and other health problems, and we are afraid the scarcity of potable water here in Pouss could become a major health scare," Abarkar said.
The government has announced that it will begin work on the dykes and the dam as soon as the rainy season ends in January 2013.
Micheal Tembang, an official in the ministry of environment and nature protection and a member of the government's emergency committee, attributed the unprecedented flooding in the normally dry north to the effects of climate change.
"Persistent rain for three weeks in a desert-prone region like the Far North is a clear departure from the past, indicative of changes in the climate pattern," Tembang said.
He added that billions of CFA francs' worth of farm products, domestic animals, houses and other property were destroyed.
"We have asked the population of the affected areas to evacuate the zone which has become risky and dangerous and relocate to safer areas," said Jean Pierre Nana, director of disaster response in the territorial administration ministry.
Nana said that the area is suffering from disrupted socio-economic activities, and widespread environmental and ecological degradation.
"The assessment made so far shows that there could be a recurrence of such a disaster should the heavy rains reappear," he added.
Environmental experts agree, saying that if the prolonged heavy and rain becomes a trend, more water will be released from the reservoir and further damages will be caused.
INCREASED DAM CAPACITY?
Activists have called on the governments of Cameroon and Nigeria to increase the capacity of the Lagdo dam when it is rebuilt.
"Changes in climate patterns are very unpredictable, so measures to reconstruct the dam and increase its capacity should be envisaged, while sufficient sensitization should be done to keep the population away from the zone," said Djoubeirou Abakar, an environmentalist working with the Cameroon Red Cross.
Although flooding during the rainy season is not unusual in the north of the country, "the disaster this year is enormous, with heavy loss of human lives," Akabar observed. "This calls for more practical action to avoid even heavier damages in the future."
An inter-ministerial committee will investigate structural and reinvestment measures to prevent a repeat of such a disaster in the future, the communications minister Tchiroma said.
Meanwhile, Cameroon's minister of territorial administration has urged the joint Nigerian-Cameroonian commission that monitors the activities of the Lagdo dam and Lake Nyos to intensify its activities and exchange preventive information more efficiently.
Elias Ntungwe Ngalame is an award-winning environmental writer with Cameroon's Eden Group of newspapers.