How Ghana’s Biggest Slum Copes With Climate Change-Fueled Floods
Old Fadama, the biggest slum in Ghana’s capital, represents what climate change might do to cities around the world.
Image: Mariana Fernandez.
On a regular night during the month of June, Afishetu Al Hassan wakes up to the sound of splashing.
She instinctively reaches for the bucket she keeps at arm's length and, still half-asleep, begins the tedious process of scooping water up from the floor of her bedroom before it damages the food and utilities she needs to sell the next morning.
Her home in the Old Fadama slum of Ghana's capital is one of the many marked with a red "X" by the Accra Metropolitan Assembly as evidence of its imminent demolition. Like so many others close to the Korle Lagoon, it is susceptible to flooding with even the lightest rainfall.
Perennial floods have been a continuous problem in Accra for decades, but, according to Senior Fellow at the Center for Climate and Security, Shiloh Fetzek, a more vigorous hydrological cycle due to climate change is resulting in unprecedented levels of rainfall season after season.
After the rains of June 3, 2015 claimed more than 150 lives, the government finds itself under increased scrutiny to prevent another mass casualty disaster this rainy season. An imminent election months after the rains end does not relieve the pressure.
"The fact is that most of the inhabitants are living in a very low area that is not good for human habitation," said presiding member of the Accra Metropolitan Assembly, Hon. Thomas Ashong.
The water from the Odowa River, which runs from the north of the city, ends up in the surrounding Korle lagoon, causing it to overflow into many of the homes of the roughly 80,000—100,000 people that live in Old Fadama today.
Although it is now Accra's biggest slum, Old Fadama was initially established as a temporary refuge for persons internally displaced because of tribal conflict from 1994 to 1995 in the north of the country, the Konkomba-Nanumba war. "It just seemed fair that if people were being displaced from their homes and they wanted shelter and we had land that was uninhabited at the time, why not settle on it?" said Nat Nunoo Amarteifio, Mayor of Accra from 1994 to 1998.
"Life is not easy in Old Fadama," Amarteifio said. "But it is much harder where they are coming from."
It has been over 20 years, and temporary shelter has now evolved into permanent residency. But because these settlements were built with limited resources, mostly with leftover sawdust from the neighboring timber mill, and much of them are on water-locked lands that have been reclaimed from the river, it doesn't take much rain for them to be submerged.
Yet because of the people's lack of claim to the land, city authorities continue to refuse to build adequate infrastructure that would legitimize their settlement. Old Fadama residents live with clogged drains, insufficient water supply, and poor sanitation.
"In this day and age, we still have cholera in Accra," said Ghanaian resident Waseem-Ahmed Bin-Kasim, currently completing his PhD on sanitation and urbanization at Washington University in St. Louis. "And I am sure the government doesn't give us the right figures of the deaths that occur." The World Health Organization report indicates a total of 434 cases and four deaths in 2015.
Waseem recalls his own experience with the disease after the floods that occurred in 2011. "I had never felt sicker than that," he said. "And after the doctor diagnosed me with cholera, he said that if I had stayed home for two more days I would have been dead."
People convert provisions made for toilets into bedrooms, and are forced to relieve themselves in open spaces. Currently, one of the Accra Metropolitan Assembly's projects is underway to install a public sanitation facility in the Old Fadama, but because it would be on the grounds of a demolished mosque, people have expressed they would be reluctant to use it.
Despite efforts to improve sanitation, city authorities view forced relocation as the only solution. Ghana was among the first African countries to sign the United Nations Resolution Against Forced Eviction, but after the floods of June 3, 2015, the homes of over 2,000 people were demolished.
"When the bulldozers came, they didn't respect anything," said Al-Hassan Baba Fuseini, the Head of Data and Management of the Ghana Federation of the Urban Poor. The government had agreed to demolish only the structures 50 meters from the Korle Lagoon, but today, the debris extends as far as 20 meters.
"So many other communities have been reduced to rubble by the AMA [Accra Metropolitan Assembly]," said resettlement activist Salifu Abdul Mujeeb of Old Fadama. "But not them. They are strong, still standing."
While some victims of the demolition were taken in by other community members, many still sleep on the grounds of their former houses, the government-appointed relocation too far for them to continue to work in the city.
Ashong is confident that the situation is being handled better this year because of constant dredges to the lagoon. "Minutes after each of the floods, you can't see water anywhere," he said.
But many of the residents of Old Fadama like Hawa Dauda, know that even a little rain means another sleepless night. Despite government dredging efforts, Dauda has spent most of the past two weeks clearing the water from her bedroom floor. And she is fortunate enough to be one of the community members with a fan.
Those closer to the lagoon are forced to sleep in turns on their makeshift tents during the two three-month periods of rain. During the day they take them down, fearful of being evicted—yet again—from a space they were originally placed on by the government.
Efforts are currently underway by the Ministry of Local Government to collect funding to finish the wall that would surround the Old Fadama enclave and prevent people from settling too close to the Korle. But every day, according to Fuseini, over 100 new migrants come into the community looking for a place to live.
As climate change intensifies, Fetzek explained, farmers and herders from the north whose "livelihoods are sensitive to climatic changes, will be more likely to pursue alternative livelihoods and greater food security in nearby cities." Most of these displaced people end up in Old Fadama due to lack of resources.
The challenge facing local authorities is the lack of space within the city's jurisdiction to relocate the increasing population of Old Fadama, a reflection of the country's wider housing problem and underdeveloped rural areas. For Ashong, "the best solution is to get them into our sister district assemblies," he said.
But the Old Fadama is strategically located between the city's three major markets, where most of its residents work. And most of its inhabitants have been settled there for decades.
Fuseini is from the Diare village in the Northern region of Ghana, roughly 400 miles from Accra. "I have a hometown," he said. "But I've lived in Old Fadama for almost 17 years. For my children, this is their only home."
Instead of relocation, Fuseini, one of the community's leading activists, advocates for what he coins 'slum upgrading,' or the infrastructure to adequately sustain the thousands of people living in Ghana's marginalized communities.
Through the collaboration of local government, NGOs, and the leaders of these communities, Fuseini believes slums like the Old Fadama can acquire the status of formal settlements and then be equipped with adequate water drainage, proper ways to dispose of waste, sufficient social amenities, and sanitation facilities to prevent floods from affecting the lives of its residents.
"In Dubai, people are building on the sea," Fuseini jokes. "So why shouldn't a flooding area develop?"