I've written before about floods in Niger and Abidjan, but these experiences left me poorly prepared for what I saw in Benin a few days ago.
Half the country is under water, and it's still raining.
We recently received a request from the President of Benin to assist with recent flooding. I was asked to go take a look, get a feel for the scale of the problem, find out what Government and donors were doing about it, and make some recommendations for Bank action.
After booking my flight, I did a Google search which revealed no details, even from OCHA, the UN's humanitarian branch. So I was sceptical about finding the type of damage I had seen elsewhere in the region over the past two months. If there was a big problem, the international press didn't seem to know about it. If they did, perhaps they were too tired of Haiti, Pakistan, or spoiling the euphoria following the rescued miners.
So I flew to the capital city of Cotonou, which is built on a narrow stretch of sand dunes between the Atlantic Ocean and a large lagoon. After briefings from the Ministers of Interior and Decentralization, we toured the flooded areas of Cotonou in canoes. I have not been to Venice, so had not experienced the odd sensation of boating down a city street. The water was thick, black and ominous -- a brackish cocktail of floating garbage and the contents of countless latrines (there is no sewage treatment in Cotonou). I could imagine the water-borne diseases happily multiplying in this soup. Indeed, the latest reports are that 800 people have already come down with cholera, a figure which must certainly rise much higher.
Despite water levels, most people appeared to remain in their homes and many came out to watch us float by. Some were sleeping in boats. Other families were living in schools, displacing the students who had just started the new school year two weeks ago.
The scale of the problem changed when we got up in an army helicopter. We flew over the southern third of the country, and it immediately became apparent that over half of the country was submerged. In terms of food production, the floods could not have come at a worse time, with the harvest just weeks away. The Oueme basin was the worst hit, and it was difficult to say where the river was and where it wasn't. There were no roads visible anywhere. Many families were living in or on their roofs, peeling up a section of sheet metal to act as a door to their attic.
Some people waved at us, obviously asking for help or rescue, reminiscent of the disturbing images from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. After three weeks in the water with no help from the outside, they must be getting desperate.
The UN system is now on the job, although relief has at this time not reached the population. In the brief space of a week, the situation has gone from being completely under the radar to Benin being recognized as the most heavily impacted by flooding in West Africa.
And our role? It is an uncomfortable experience to be World Bank staff on a visit to the site of a disaster.
An NGO asked pointedly what the Bank would put on the table in terms of relief efforts. A journalist interviewed me, wondering what we intended to do to help those suffering. A lady, standing knee-deep in water as we drove by, yelled at me in a local language, apparently expressing her outrage that no one was helping them.
I had no satisfactory answer for any of them. We are not a relief agency and shouldn't try to be. We cannot promise quick fixes like food, shelter, or medical care, no matter how important that is.
However, there is plenty we can do and must do in the recovery period. We can give the government some fiscal breathing room with accelerated budget support. Through the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR), we can conduct a post-disaster needs assessment to figure out where the Bank and other donors should focus efforts in the medium term. We can help with an early warning system, as we and the GFDRR are doing in Togo. We have a new urban environment project to address water treatment and solid waste management. We are preparing an agriculture operation that can request emergency financing from the Global Food Crisis Response Program (GFRP). Our community development and education projects can re-think the locations of sub-projects like schools and aim for drier ground.
We can do all that, and it will help ease the pain of the next flood. Meanwhile, we have to hope that the rains stops, the water recedes, and that these flood victims figure out how to survive.
Here are some pictures of what I saw: