Violence erupted in Accra, Ghana in June, following slum demolitions that were part of a plan to reduce flood risk. The events show how measures to respond to climate change can unintentionally impact the security environment, and how finding workable solutions that reduce climate risk can be fraught with difficulty.
Old Fadama is the biggest and oldest slum in Accra, built along main waterways that drain into the Gulf of Guinea. Known locally as ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’, the slum is also one of the world’s largest electronic waste dumping sites. The accumulation of waste here blocks drainage along the Odaw River leading to the Korle Lagoon, exacerbating the city’s lack of adequate sewer and storm drains and contributing to frequent floods.
In response to this perennial problem, on the 20th and 21st June the Mayor and Regional Minister of Accra oversaw the demolition of thousands of structures, displacing somewhere between 12,000 and 20,000 residents. The stated aim was to clear dwellings and businesses on the river’s banks, allowing access for machinery to dredge silt and waste and improve drainage.
The scale of the demolition went far beyond anything residents had expected. Some had been told that authorities would clear a path to the Korle Lagoon, and the city had consulted with ‘opinion leaders and chiefs’. Trucks with megaphones had announced the plans, but were unable to reach into the interior of the slum. Clashes with police were reported as residents were prevented from collecting their possessions before bulldozers razed the structures. It is Accra’s rainy season, and many were left seeking shelter for themselves and their possessions. It is also Ramadan, and Old Fadama is a predominantly Muslim area populated by migrants from the north of Ghana. Some observers also pointed out the forced evictions were taking place on World Refugee Day.
A perennial problem
This is only the latest episode in the long history of the Accra Metropolitan Assembly’s attempts to clear the slum and dredge the waterways, a problem that has rankled planners and citizens who complain of a lack of political will to clear the slum. The Korle Lagoon Ecological Restoration Project, a long-standing plan to improve drainage and reduce flood risk, has been held up by a lawsuit involving American contractors hired for the job, funding that never materialized, as well as concerns for the human rights of the slum residents.
Although the roots of this demolition exercise are entangled with previous improvement projects and land tenure claims, the current push was partly motivated by a fatal accident that happened on the 4th of June. Over 150 people died during an episode of abnormally heavy rainfall and flooding, when a petrol station exploded - flammable liquids had been carried on the surface of floodwater to an open fire, causing the explosion.
Following a visit to the scene of the disaster, President John Dramani Mahama referred to the need to unclog Accra’s waterways, saying, "I think that the time has come for us to remove houses out of water and the public should understand that it is necessary to save everybody else." He added, "Year in, year out, this continues to happen. Until we attack it scientifically and strategically we will continue to have this problem."
The Monday following the weekend’s slum demolitions, around 500 residents mobilized to demand compensation for lost residences and belongings, as well as temporary shelter to allow them to save funds to reconstruct their dwellings. They blocked roads and disrupted trade, prompting a police reaction, whereupon protesters threw stones and scrap metal and destroyed three police vehicles and a motorbike. These clashes resulted in tear gas and rubber bullets being fired, along with 26 arrests for vandalism, including of Ghana’s State House, which they had stormed. According to local radio, one of the demonstrators’ placards read ‘Before 2016 you’ll see Boko Haram in Ghana’.
Defending the demolition action, Accra Mayor Alfred Oko Vanderpuije said that in light of the recent floods and heavy rainfall experienced in the capital, swift action was needed to stop another flood resulting in even heavier fatalities. He said, "We are in an era of climate change. Nobody ever thought that the level of rain that we had three weeks ago could come upon us. So it’s not a matter of elections; it's a matter of doing what is right to save lives now."
At the time of writing, the unrest had led to a halt in the demolition, with local authorities planning to engage in dialogue and a more consultative process with residents in another area of the slum also slated for demolition. Part of the reason for this pause may be potential political repercussions of the demolition in the 2016 election. Old Fadama is a traditional stronghold of the ruling National Democratic Congress party, which contributed to their shock at the scale and lack of warning for the demolition. During the disturbances residents vocally withdrew their support for the party in the upcoming election.
Accra’s frequent and often fatal flooding events will not be resolved without addressing the waste and drainage issues that the slum exacerbates. Although the reasons for dredging the lagoon and constructing sewer and storm water drainage infrastructure extend beyond climate change (e.g. health, environmental improvements), climate risks are on the minds of the Accra Metropolitan Assembly and National Disaster Management Organization – both of which were involved in last weekend’s demolition exercise.
In the difficult context of the slums, the need to mitigate climate risk butts up against the political and security consequences of taking action. As Jeffrey Stark and Katsuaki Terasawa write in their report ‘Climate Change and Conflict in West African Cities: Early Warning Signs in Lagos and Accra’, forcibly evicting and demolishing informal settlements is inevitably met with resistance, but upgrading slums is also notoriously difficult. Added to this, projections for a hotter and drier climate in the north could impact livelihoods and food security, reinforcing migration flows into Old Fadama.
These incidents illustrate some of the difficulties involved in designing risk reduction measures that do not exacerbate existing points of tension, or create new ones. Even in stable democracies with relatively strong governance capacities, intervening in a way that disadvantages already vulnerable groups can create unintended negative effects, with sometimes violent consequences. Sensitively navigating the trade-offs, with an eye for dynamics that could raise these risks, can help to minimize the type of disturbance or unrest that is most likely to be associated with climate impacts in the near term. However, as this case indicates, achievable and affordable solutions that meet these criteria may not be easy to attain.