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City of Banjul
Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Beijing after the floods: Lessons for Banjul

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By Talibeh Hydara

In the final weeks of my stay in Beijing, the city experienced record-breaking heat. I would remain inside with AC on 24/7 and would only stroll out in the evening when the weather became a bit friendly. It was even tough to go down from my apartment to the gate to pick up packages during the day with 40 degrees. That is why, for a city usually known for relatively dry summers, it came as a huge shock when rains poured down nonstop and caused severe flooding in the capital and its surrounding regions in late July. Of course, the flash floods were caused by Typhoon Doksuri, a destructive tropical cyclone that wreaked havoc in China, the Philippines and Vietnam. It was a costly typhoon.

Cars lie stranded on a flooded road in Mentougou district 1
Cars lie stranded on a flooded road in Mentougou district (PC: China Daily)

Record rains fell in Beijing, with a reservoir in Changping district logging 744.8mm (29.3 inches) in four days, the most in the city in over 140 years. In fact, Chinese media reported that in the populous province of Hebei, one weather station recorded 1,003mm within three days. To put that into context, that is an amount of rainfall normally seen over a year and a half. It was a downpour.

I keenly followed events in the country and I was amazed by the coordination despite facing destruction and tragedy. In the small city of Zhuozhou, for example, police issued a plea on social media for lights to assist with rescue work. The whole city was lit up in no time and that enabled rescue teams traverse in rubber boats, evacuating people stuck in their homes. Everyone became a rescuer! The resilience and humanitarianism shown across the country was admirable.

I have been to almost every district in Beijing. Unsurprisingly, Mentougou was my favourite. Stunning peaks, pearl lakes and temples; Mentougou is a treasure trove whose creativity in restoring abandoned court yards into world-class guest houses gives the mountainous district a touch of serenity and ecology. I tried to visit the district again before I left but I could not. I felt there was more to explore but there was no enough time. The hardest hit districts in Beijing by the floods were Fangshan and Mentougou. The National Early Warning Center revealed Mentougou had received 470 millimeters of rain at some point, which caused the nearby Yongding River to inundate several villages. Being my favourite place in Beijing means following developments there. Even though the damages were heart-breaking, there was incredible support and commitment to rescue everyone. I saw the PLA dispatch transport helicopters to airdrop rescue supplies to trapped trains and to transfer patients to safe areas. I also watched as dozens of firefighters hiked to rescue people in Miaofengshan township, where villagers were trapped by floods.

Rescue workers helping villagers in Mentougou
Rescue workers helping villagers in Mentougou

If there is any district I would love to live in Beijing, it is Mentougou. Maybe because it is in the outskirts and there is still that ruralness in me. Like we always say here, you can take the man out of the village but you cannot take the village out of the man. It is quiet. It is peaceful. It is beautiful. As I watched from afar, I am impressed with the pace of recovery and spirit of the people. Hopefully, things will go back to normal soon and the district will continue developing into a stunning and an attractive eco-friendly spot, which I will visit again someday.  

Let’s talk about The Gambia now. I love rains. I was born and grew up at the village in the West Coast Region. We survived on what we grew and that heavily depended on sufficient rainfall every year. The Gambia is tropical; it is just dry and wet seasons. When the first rains drop, the excitement would be palpable in the village. Everyone would have already cleared an area earmarked for farming different crops and first rains would usually signal the beginning of sowing. No matter how heavy the rains were, there would be no major destruction to residences and no stagnant rain water too. The village is sloped, which makes the rain water flow through the street right to the swamps with ease. The houses are also surrounded by different fruit trees; oranges, mangoes, guavas, all of which served as windbreakers in case of storms. No floods, no matter much volume of rainfall at ago and windstorms hardly destroyed any houses because of the trees. And, more interestingly, the village is a semi-island, with some areas just a few hundred meters from the swamps, which would ordinarily make it prone to floods due to its proximity to the river. 

President Barrow on visit to flood affected areas in Banjul
President Barrow on visit to flood affected areas in Banjul

I only got to worry about heavy rains or storms when I moved to the urban area. Despite having stronger houses than those we had at the village, windstorms regularly lift roofs and cause immeasurable destructions here. 

Last year, between 30th and 31st July, 276mm (10.87 inches) was the highest recorded rainfall in The Gambia in over three decades. I remember literally swimming to work. For 24hrs straight, the rains didn’t stop. Roads flooded. Bedrooms submerged. Livelihoods destroyed. People displaced. It was a dark period. Banjul, our small island capital, almost became Atlantis, with inundated water rising to dangerous levels. Thinking about it, only 276mm of rains fell in two days. Imagine, 1,003mm of rains fell in Hebei within three days. If that much rain is recorded here, we would need Noah’s Ark. Nevertheless, by our standard, the damages were and still are irreparable. The National Disaster Management Agency revealed that eleven people died and over five thousand individuals were displaced by the floods. The Agency said those affected ranged from children to people with disabilities, with over 2000 pregnant and breastfeeding women affected as well.

However, unlike other countries like China, The Gambia struggles to recover from any disaster. That is why we should be grateful we hardly have any major disasters. If there is fire at a market, it will take years before rebuilding that market. If a windstorm destroys houses, victims will struggle for years before having a roof over their heads. The same goes for floods and boat disasters. There is so much lacking in our response efforts that sometimes it feels like we don’t do anything but sit around and wish the problem would go away. For example, thirteen months since the windstorms and floods caused destructions, many victims are still struggling either for food or a safe place to live. The recovery never ends. The Gambia is way behind when it comes to disaster prevention and response. In fact, what is common in our response efforts is donor agencies stepping in to help. In the end, we leave everything to them, who, to be grateful to them, do try but their project-based assistance phases out in due course, leaving victims in desperate and precarious situations.   

Street in Banjul after the floods 2022
Street in Banjul after the floods 2022

  When the disaster struck and thousands of families were left without food or houses to sleep in, the European Commission provided EUR 200,000 in emergency humanitarian funding to assist those affected by the flash floods. The money sounds huge, but is it? Besides, well before the floods in late July last year, the World Food Programme food security assessment data revealed over 200,000 people—approximately 8.6 percent of the population—faced hunger in The Gambia. Then, the United Nations Central Emergency Respond Fund and WFP’s Immediate Response Account came up with an initiative to assist families hit by the disaster. Households were identified and marked for assistance, with each receiving US$ 43.50 per month for three months. Most households in The Gambia, whether struck by disaster or not, will take that money and call you a saviour. But, in truth, is it enough?

There is a lot we can learn from China, including disaster response. The floods caused huge damages in Beijing and other provincial-level regions in the country. There have been lots of deaths, including those who risked their lives rescuing others and local government officials. But there was a collective response to the disaster and the Chinese government dedicated millions of dollars to provide relief to the people. Areas that were hardest-hit; Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei, Heilongjiang and Jilin, will recover and rebuild like nothing happened. In a few weeks, you might struggle to identify which areas were actually flooded or destroyed. That is how you respond to disaster! 

Banjul mayor Rohey Lowe assesses damages in the capital after July 2022 floods
Banjul mayor Rohey Lowe
assesses damages in the
capital after July 2022 floods

The Gambian people are on the edge again as rains pick up pace in August. Already, some areas have started flooding and if another disaster strikes—windstorms or flash floods—the tragedy will be unbearable. Since we have incredibly poor response to disaster, we ought to do better in prevention by constructing good drainage systems and planting more trees. Planting more trees is the magic. In the past ten years alone, China has regrown more than 70 million hectares of forest cover and aims to plant more than 70 billion trees by 2030 as part of the global tree movement. We, as a country, also need to plant more trees and stop cutting and trimming those in the streets. Planting more trees will not only beautify the country and serve as windbreakers but will also protect the forest cover and curb climate change. No need to break any sweat, just plant more trees. Since rains will always come and disasters are almost inevitable, we ought to strengthen our preparedness and early warning system. The government needs to also allocate sufficient funds to speedily provide relief when disaster strikes and assist victims get back on their feet. We cannot afford to keep piling up statistics of disaster victims who continue to struggle for a semblance of normalcy. The lessons are there to be learned from the recent floods in China; government funds allocation, efficient rescue work, citizen participation, provision of relief services and, above all, quick reconstruction and recovery.

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