Learning to live with persistent flooding

Words by Amy Faust | 15 Jun, 2012

One young man in a group of three pointed just above his head to a brown stain that stretched from the ground nearly to the roof of a small one-story cinderblock house. “The water went up to there.”

Most of the structures in this section of Dar es Salaam’s Vingunguti ward were still standing, despite being hard hit by flooding late last December, caused by the heaviest rains in the region since 1961. The evidence was clear a week after the disaster that claimed at least 40 lives, left thousands homeless, and paralyzed the city of over four million: tall piles of garbage excavated from homes and yards lined the now-dusty narrow streets. Drainage channels filled to the brim with mud and trash were being dug out by hand with sticks and hoes. Yet the neighborhood wasn’t deserted—tiny shops that had been nearly submerged were re-stocked with vegetables and pirated DVDs, kids played football, laundry dried in the sun.

While the level of December’s flooding was extraordinary, it isn’t an uncommon occurrence in Dar, and citizens have their ways of dealing with it during the twice-annual rainy seasons. Many informal settlements, where roughly 70% of the population resides, flood often enough that residents have developed a routine. As Jamila Balari of the Tandale ward told researchers for a study included in the 2011 Global Report on Human Settlements, “When it starts to rain, the first thing to do is to take the mattress and small items and put them in the ceiling. If it gets worse, young men will carry children to the upper side of the area.” In December many people stayed in their homes to keep an eye on their possessions, or simply were caught unaware since there was no clear call to evacuate until neighborhoods were already underwater. When rivers unexpectedly swelled, families ended up stranded on rooftops waiting for help to arrive. By boat.

Being well accustomed to flooded roads during rains, December’s storms didn’t keep morning commuters from going about their business either. As a consequence, later in the day workers on the ground floor of a UN office had to bolt upstairs when high tide pushed back the rushing Msimbazi River well over its banks, suddenly inundating the building—which is located in a formally planned, low-density area. Thousands of commuters were also trapped on roadsides when their daladalas, public minibuses, faced impassable roads as waters rose. Hannah, a baker who works about 25 kilometers from her house, was marooned for hours after trying to transfer between lines when buses became paralyzed, unable to continue in any direction until waters receded.

“Resilient” is the latest buzzword to describe cities that are equipped to confront natural disasters. The resilient city is one that bounces back and adapts, becomes stronger each time it is faced with adversity. Dar es Salaam’s people certainly deal with flooding, but does this make the city as a whole stronger? Or could it be increasing its vulnerability?

The routine of coping with frequent floods combined with a lack of timely information caused individuals to be unaware of risks or even downplay them, resulting in decisions to stay put when it was safer to evacuate, or travelling when it was safer to stay put. The government’s response to the recent disaster has primarily been to relocate a few hundred of the most at-risk families, which will help put some out of harm’s way. But in a city, where behavior and built environment work together to transform rain into flood into disaster, it will take a major commitment to address the chronic underlying issues —enforcing building regulations, establishing effective early-warning systems, improving drainage infrastructure, and making sure trash doesn’t clog everything up. Anything else is akin to stuffing a mattress in the ceiling when it starts to drizzle.

Amy Faust is an urbanist, environmentalist, and resilience specialist