Infrastructural Inequality’s Role in the 2009 West Africa Floods

Though floods are considered natural disasters, most of the damage they cause is related to human activity. Like earthquakes, floods rarely posed many risks to people before human civilization developed. This makes them an excellent indicator of large-scale social problems- a society’s preparation and response to a flood can reveal much about both its physical and its information infrastructure. From word-of-mouth warning networks to hydroelectric dams, the social fiber of a country or region plays an enormous role in the control of floods’ effects. Therefore, in countries where floods have considerably larger effects, an understanding of their development is essential to a full understanding of the geographic effects of the floods. Disparities in the responses of different countries in the same region reveal not just inequities in each country’s own infrastructure, but difficulties in regional coordination and communication concerning floods. Just as problems in local villages’ responses to flooding can better be explained in the context of national or regional failures, so too can supranational complications deepen a comprehension of national failures. In particular, problems with flood management reveal broader international difficulties with surface water management- an understanding of which is incomplete without taking the global phenomenon of climate change into account. In addition to the geophysical and hydrological shifts brought about by climate change, more local problems with agriculture and water management can be explained by regional policy (or lack thereof) coordinated by large institutions like the International Monetary Fund. The role that such institutions play in shaping policy from an international down to a local level highlights the unevenness of that policy and its subsequent effects. All of these factors had a role to play in shaping the events surrounding the 2009 West African floods. This paper will examine the role of infrastructure and institutions in shaping policies and procedures of flood preparation in some of these countries. Comparisons will be made both between different countries in the region, and between the least developed countries and more developed countries elsewhere in the world. In making these comparisons, particular attention will be paid to ecological management. Due to these inequalities, the conceptual model of uneven development offers a tremendous amount of insight into the social context of the floods.

The Flood

During 2009’s rainy season (June to September), over seven hundred and sixty-three thousand people were displaced from their homes and nearly two hundred were killed by flooding in Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Benin, Ghana, Côte D’Ivoire, Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Gambia, and Senegal.1 Examining the information about the events themselves reveals the inconsistencies in reporting indicative of broader irregularities throughout the region. Some countries have reliable reporting on the destruction of farmland, whereas others only have estimates of the number of households affected.2 Just as the flood’s effects were different in various countries due, in part, to water infrastructure, the gathering and reporting of information reflects the unevenness of communication infrastructure in the region. Different countries similarly had varying degrees of difficulty housing the newly created refugees after they were displaced from their homes.

Ecology and Infrastructure

A far more frequent natural hazard in West Africa than flooding are periodic droughts, which have become more intense with changes in the climate. The increasing severity of these disasters also increases the risk of flooding, as vegetation that would help to absorb rainfall is wiped out by the heat. The two can sometimes occur simultaneously- in the midst of a serious drought in 1983, over a hundred and fifty millimeters of rain fell on northeastern Senegal in around four hours.3 The changes in West Africa’s climate in the past fifty years have tended towards extremes- both longer droughts and larger rainfalls. Combined, the two hazards accounted for ninety-two percent of the significant damage in West Africa between 1963 and 1992, as well as increasing the volatility of epidemics.4 Depleting reserves of surface water have led to the construction of dams to sustain agricultural production. 5 Despite this, the region has vast amounts of untapped and renewable water resources, used at the rate of less than one percent per year. In the context of uneven development, the over-exploitation of surface water resources that exacerbates these droughts, and subsequently the floods, stems directly from underinvestment in renewable water infrastructure. Israel, on average, gets thirty-seven percent less precipitation (by depth) than Senegal per year, and has less than a tenth of Senegal’s per capita renewable water resources67, yet is not plagued by the same surface water deficiencies as Senegal- a consequence of uneven development.

With adequate investment in infrastructural improvements, farmers could avoid depleting the surface water and the consequent problems that come with such depletion. In a discussion of West African wetlands, W.M. Adams writes: “An important idea here is the use of dams to release artificial controlled floods… this would reduce the unpredictability in flooding which currently contributes to the risks of floodplain farming without demanding a wholesale shift to formal irrigation.”8 Such a project would require both significant investment in both physical (new and correctly placed dams) and information (predictive climate models, data networks about seasonal rainfall) infrastructures. By providing both new dams to absorb rainfall and maintaining wetlands that serve as a natural buffer zone, the project could very easily mitigate the effects of future storms like that of 2009. Extended periods of drought from the 1970s to the 1990s9 contributed to resettlement in risky areas closer to the reduced riverbanks, posing a threat to villages and farmers unprepared for high volumes of rain.

The cases of flood preparation also illuminate both the unevenness and the need for new infrastructure. Forced by heavy rainfalls in early September, officials in Burkina Faso had no choice to open the floodgates on a dam on the Volta river. “Even when we operate normally and release water, some people drown while crossing [the river] downstream,” said one official.10 The effects of this emergency action were largely felt in Ghana, which lies down the river from Burkina Faso and had more flood deaths than any other of the affected countries.11 A perfect example of the effects of uneven infrastructure, officials in neither country had enough data to accurately predict the rainfall, and the dam created an extraordinarily large and sudden volume of water that would have accumulated more gradually without its presence. Additionally, communication networks in the region were found wanting, as officials in Ghana had less than twenty-four hours’ notice before the gates were opened.12 This twofold shortcoming, in addition displaying a trend in regional infrastructure, only serves to heighten tensions between the two countries. The two are also clashing over increasingly scarce freshwater resources,13 a conflict which can be traced, in the context of uneven development, to a lack of infrastructural investment. The lack of preparation for flooding was not limited to the countryside, however- urban areas found themselves lacking the drainage necessary to deal with the rainfall as the result of urbanization, according to UN officials.14 In another example of failures in communication infrastructure, Niger lost part of its early warning system at the end of its colonial era. According to sociologist Issouf Bayard, a warning siren used to be in place to alert residents of flood-prone areas to heavy rainfall, but has not been active since independence in 1960.15 Foisted on the independent Niger by the French government, this inequality represents one of the myriad ways in which core countries have affected, and continue to affect long after their departure, countries in the periphery.

The World Bank’s Role

The presence and influence of institutions such as the World Bank plays its role in the development of these countries. Of the affected countries, Benin, Burkina Faso, Gambia, Ghana, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, and Sierra Leone have met the World Bank’s “completion point” as of fall 2009, which means they have carried out “key structural and social reforms” and implemented a “Poverty Reduction Strategy” for at least a year. While each strategy paper is different for each country, they all still emphasize privatizing state industries. The countries, in exchange for debt relief, are obligated to carry out a series of neoliberal reforms. The privatization of government assets (such as energy companies in Senegal, Burkina Faso, and Benin)16 can create a tension between private profit and the public good. In particular, the liberalization of the financial sector (a stated goal in the PRSP of many of these countries), when combined with the privatization of energy companies might lead to dangerous speculation in energy prices. Such speculation had disastrous results during the California energy crisis (as Enron manipulated prices), which in turn could have deleterious effects on hydroelectric dam operations in the region. Additionally, current policy prioritizes flood support over electricity generation in times of crisis- between 1970 and 1992 in Senegal, an average of 19.3 megawatts of power were lost due to flood support per year17– a potentially huge source of revenue for a newly privatized energy sector. The pressure of profit provides a greater incentive to focus on electricity generation when the rivers are at risk for flooding.

Additionally, the influence of large institutions such as the World Bank leads to a reorganization of priorities. The desire on the part of the government to create sustainable agricultural projects outweighs the perceived need for flood control, as evidenced by the spending outlaid in Senegal’s PRSP – spending on flood preparation was roughly one eighth that of agricultural investment.18 While not prima facie evidence of imposed change, the spending shows the tension between different priorities. Moreover, the investment, guided by transnational institutions like the World Bank, takes on a very neoliberal character. Jean-Denis Crola, writing for Oxfam, noted the risk of economic shock caused by drops in commodity prices after the 2009 flood,19 a shock that the World Bank’s emphasis on cash crop and commodity production could easily exacerbate. Recommending the increase of greater regional co-ordination, Crola also suggested that the IMF & World Bank’s decentralized approach to economic growth amplified the shocks to agriculture brought by the floods.20


The patterns of uneven development foisted on West Africa through past colonization and present institutional arrangements have greatly amplified the effects of last year’s flooding. Agricultural policy emphasizes the production of cash crops to generate revenue for a government that desperately needs to pay down its debts to more developed countries. Set mostly by state governments in conjunction with supranational institutions like the World Bank, such policy does not necessarily take the needs of the local ecosystem into account. The oversights of such policy can exacerbate the effects of extreme heat- and drought can make floods far worse. The two, as seen by the historical account of Senegal, can happen concurrently, and developmental investments in climate modeling are necessary to even have a chance at predicting such a dangerous occurrence. Quality prediction is also necessary not just for emergency evacuation, but for the effective management of seasonal wetlands through dams- infrastructure which would greatly aid in both flood prevention and in the preservation of traditional forms of life. Unfortunately, countervailing pressures are leading West Africa down a different developmental path- one towards industry focused on paying the burden of debt that all the countries affected by the flood bear. The preferred strategy of the IMF to prevent people from being affected by the floods is that of urbanization (a flawed strategy, as the intense flooding of Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou demonstrates) and resettlement away from floodprone areas rather than effective management of those areas. The influence is not manifestly bad, however- the World Bank’s interest in modernizing the communications networks of these countries will undoubtedly have a powerful positive impact on early warning systems, as well as opening up the possibility for regional coordination of dam and river management. These tensions and difficulties all highlight the central role that infrastructural development, and its unevenness, play in Africa’s future.


Crola, Jean-Denis. “Aid for Agriculture: Turning Promises into Reality on the Ground,.” Oxfam Research Report (2009): 1-51. Web. 12 Apr. 2010.

“ReliefWeb » Document Preview » Factbox – West Africa’s Seasonal Floods in 2009.”ReliefWeb » Home Page. 4 Sept. 2009. Web. 13 Apr. 2010. <;.

Economic Policy and Debt – (HIPC) The Enhanced Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative.” The World Bank. 28 Sept. 2009. Web. 13 Apr. 2010. <,,contentMDK:20260411~menuPK:64166739~pagePK:64166689~piPK:64166646~theSitePK:469043,00.html>

POVERTY REDUCTION STRATEGY PAPER II. Publication. Republic of Senegal/World Bank, Sept. 2006.

Ojo, O., S. O. Gbuyiro, and C. U. Okoloye. “Implications of Climatic Variability and Climate Change for Water Resources Availability and Management in West Africa.” GeoJournal 61.2 (2004): 111-19. Print.

De, Blij Harm J., Peter O. Muller, and Blij Harm J. De. The World Today: Concepts and Regions in Geography. New York: John Wiley, 2007. Print.

Kreimer, Alcira, Margaret Arnold, and Anne Carlin. Building Safer Cities: the Future of Disaster Risk. Washington, D.C.: World Bank, 2003. Print.

Albergel, Jean, Jean-Claude Bader, and Jean-Pierre Lamagat. “Flood and Drought: Application to the Senegal River Management.” Sustainability of Water Resources under Increasing Uncertainty. Proc. of IAHS Scientific Assembly, Morocco, Rabat. Tokyo: CTI Engineering Ltd, 1997. 509-17. Print.

Adams, W. M. “Indigenous Use of Wetlands and Sustainable Development in West Africa.” Geographical Journal 159.2 (1993): 209-18. Print.

Olopade, Dayo. “Class Divisions in the Land of Climate Change.” Michigan Chronicle 16 Dec. 2009: 3.

OECD Regional Atlas on West Africa. Paris: OECD, 2009. Print.

IRIN News. “BURKINA FASO-GHANA: One Country’s Dam, Another’s Flood.” IRIN Africa. UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 4 Sept. 2009. Web. 13 Apr. 2010.

IRIN News. “IRIN Africa | NIGER: Desert Flooding Wipes out Electricity, Homes, Livestock | West Africa | Niger | Early Warning Natural Disasters Water & Sanitation | News Item.”IRIN Africa. 3 Sept. 2009. Web. 13 Apr. 2010.

1UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

2ReliefWeb, “Factbox- West Africa’s Seasonal Floods in 2009”

3Ojo, O., S. O. Gbuyiro, and C. U. Okoloye. “Implications of Climatic Variability and Climate Change for Water Resources Availability and Management in West Africa,” p. 116

4Ibid, p. 117

5OECD, Regional Atlas of West Africa, p. 113

6United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization AQUASTAT

7CIA World Factbook, Senegal & Israel

8Adams, W. M. “Indigenous Use of Wetlands and Sustainable Development in West Africa,” p. 216

9OECD, Regional Atlas of West Africa p. 253

10IRIN, “One Country’s Dam, Another’s Flood”

11UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

12IRIN, “One Country’s Dam, Another’s Flood”

13Olopade, Dayo. “Class Divisions in the Land of Climate Change.” Michigan Chronicle 16 Dec. 2009

14ReliefWeb, “Factbox- West Africa’s Seasonal Floods in 2009”

15IRIN, “Desert flooding wipes out electricity, homes, livestock”

16POVERTY REDUCTION STRATEGY PAPER II. Republic of Senegal/World Bank, Sept. 2006.

17Albergel, Jean, Jean-Claude Bader, and Jean-Pierre Lamagat. “Flood and Drought: Application to the Senegal River Management,”

18POVERTY REDUCTION STRATEGY PAPER II. Republic of Senegal/World Bank, Sept. 2006.

19Jean-Denis Crola, “Aid for Agriculture: Turning Promises into Reality on the Ground,” p. 11

20Ibid, p. 6-8


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s