I thought about the Lagos flood, then it recalled Davido’s 2019 single Assurance. In the song a love-addled Davido swears romantic fealty to his then-lover Chioma, praying to die by water should he ever desert her — “make water carry me dey go, faraway”. Amazing the promises we make when love crushes the prefrontal cortex. To Lagosians that Davido line is more reality than metaphor. Every rainy season they are only terrestrial creatures half the time, the other half of their lives inconveniently water-logged. Some days ago I watched someone in an area in Lagos nearly get swept away by a flood. This time no woman was involved.
“Snake! Help!” were the words that roused me from bed on said day. The red of sleep still in the whites of my eyes, I peeked through my window to sleuth whence the siren of distress had come. In the rain outside I saw a man buried waist to toe in an overflow of roiling brown water. He continued shouting for help as he wobbled through the artificial lake towards the shore of safety. The more he lunged towards salvation, feet against the current, the more he seemed borne back ceaselessly into the open drainage on the street. His cries went unheeded. It’s the one curse of an urban city: you and you alone are responsible for your survival.
It may be because helping every stranger you see in a metropolis is asking to be scammed or mugged. The same fate awaits the flâneur, as one sees happen to Julius, Teju Cole’s protagonist in Open City. That is especially if you are flâneuring in the wrong neighbourhood. Say, Oshodi or Okokomaiko, two Lagos areas as high in crime as they are in raucous spectacle. Paraphrasing Plautus, Erasmus wrote in his Adagia: every unknown person is a wolf. If Erasmus had said “every unknown Lagosian” the truth would have stood. Stingy with a helping hand, Lagosians would give you a curious eye. Voyeurs abound in this city.
I imagined eyes, as were mine, must have been pressed against windows observing the screaming man, hoping he was wrong about the snake — perhaps it had been an error of eyesight — and hoping he didn’t lose his footing and get swept into death’s waiting mouth.
The man made it out unhurt. But trauma attends such things. Perhaps he would henceforth steer clear of water all together. Morning baths are now to be had with baby oil.
Yet he is one of the lucky ones. The Lagos flood has been far more unkind to many others. Recently, one commercial bus driver met his end this way — flushed down a drainage — in the Egbe-Idimu area of Lagos. An annual catastrophe, when the flood isn’t making streets unfit for footfall it is swallowing everything in its way. Cars. Houses. Humans.
As tragedy is never a solo event, with the flood you have commercial drivers hiking up bus fare, heavy traffic that leaves cars for hours in serried rows of immobility, and because transportation is now a wee difficult it has caused food prices to shoot up. When it rains…
A pall overhangs the usually merry-making city. Until sunshine, merriment and dry land return in August, we can in the meantime reflect: Why the flood? What can be done about it? What has been done about it?
To answer the first question: the heavy rainfall. And because Lagos is a low-lying city sitting by the Atlantic Ocean, and is 0.4 percent below the sea level. Because the city’s drainage networks are inadequate, and improperly disposed refuse clog many of our drainages.
Once I saw a man in a speeding bus toss a bunch of banana peels into a sewer. Between the vehicle and the illegal dump site lay a great distance. So that when the law-breaker successfully contributed his percentage to the dirt heap already in the sewer, his face beamed with self-satisfaction, proud of the logistical barrier he had overcome. I thought the man was a barbarian. But hold on: if we are rarely generous to random strangers, how generous can we be to the environment, which for its lack of a human face is one towering impersonality.
Experts have cited these as flood causes, too: poor urban planning, unchecked population growth and sand mining, the last of which has eroded the coastline. Combined with rising sea levels, one consequence of global climate change, scientists have only grim prophecies for Lagos and similar low-lying coastal cities around the world. One report said Lagos would be submerged by the year 2050.
Nothing suggests that the Lagos State and federal government are taking the scientific forecast seriously. The government claims to be responding to the climate threat by constructing the so-called Great Wall of Lagos. To stand at 8.5 kilometres when completed, this wall would be the concrete sentry shielding Eko Atlantic from storm surges.
Launched in 2007 and funded by Chagoury Group, Eko Atlantic is being built on land reclaimed from the Atlantic. A man-made peninsula jutting out of the affluent Victoria Island, this paradise on water has been touted to become Lagos’s economic hub, a self-contained city set to house around 250,000 people. The government says the project solves the city’s housing problem. What the official bulletin won’t tell you is that all 250,000 people would be the super-rich.
The government has also ignored critics who have warned of the downside to the Eko Atlantic project. These critics say that while the sea wall would protect the miniature city and Victoria Island and Lekki Phase I, it would cause surrounding coasts that are unprotected by the wall to become doubly vulnerable to tidal waves. The company behind the project decries the criticism as untrue. But then they have a lot invested in it. Whose word is more likely to be false? The critic with nothing to lose or the capitalist hoping to turn a profit? The latter, I think. So that leaves us with a mini-city housing the super-rich and protecting them from nature’s tantrums. But what about the rest of us?
What must be done is to protect the surrounding coasts. A proper committee, with the federal government involved, ought to be set up to devise solutions to the long-term threat posed by the Atlantic. In an ideal world the resolutions of that committee would resemble the sea-fighting measures in place in the Netherlands. Like us, the Dutch have contended with flooding and have had to think about spatial management for centuries. After the North Sea flood of 1953 that claimed nearly 1,900 lives, the Dutch developed Delta Works, a sophisticated system of dikes, dams and storm surge barriers.
That project has been utterly successful. The Dutch’s spatial intelligence shines even in the brand of football they bequeathed to the world. So named Total Football, it was developed through the 1960s to the 70s by then-Ajax coach Rinus Michels, and was marshalled on the field by Johan Cruijff. As a tactical system Total Football demands all-round ability: every outfield player must be capable of playing as defender, midfielder and striker. So that when one player runs out of his position, the nearest teammate easily fills in the void, maintaining the team’s ecological balance, allowing gameplay to flow like water. I see a metaphor here: let us imagine sea walls to be footballers in a team. A sea wall goes up around Eko Atlantic. But the other areas are vulnerable because they do not have walls of their own. No other player has filled the void. There is no all-roundness.
Lagos has a caring problem. If it’s any consolation, it’s the case with many other urban cities. Remarking on the Brooklyn subway shooting this April, Trevor Noah said this of New Yorkers: “On a normal day… [they] are not trying to help anybody”. But maybe that is what we, Lagosians, need in this watershed moment (pun intended): to care more for each other — government for (poor) people; people for people — and to care more about the environment in which we live.