Why poor urban planning not sanitation cause of Accra’s Flooding

The rains have become a living fabric of Accra’s urbanization challenges. The heavy downpours wash Accra’s streets clean leaving behind only plant debris. The water makes its way into an already overloaded drainage system only to be gurgled back out.

 This is a continuing cycle of mother nature announcing the coming of the rainy season. The June 3rd disaster restated an open secret that Accra was ill-prepared to contain such large amounts rain resulting in a disaster scale never seen before in the last decade.

A committee was set-up in response to the disaster to investigate and make recommendations to avoid such occurrences in future. The recommendations included dredging of the Odaw drain, a ban on the use of plastic carrier bags, the creation of sanitation police among others.

 Most notably, the committee recommended the demolition of illegally erected buildings, particularly those surrounding the Korle Lagoon nicknamed “Sodom and Gomorrah”, to allow the water to flow to the sea, a decision which seemed to be reactionary rather than revolutionary.

The demolition however, did reveal a deeper wider social issue of how the lack of affordable housing had contributed to the city’s congestion and consequentially, annual flood challenges.

In a paper by Un Habitat, Satellite data and GIS were used to develop a simple flood model to understand the impacts and possible property damage and pollutant spread in Accra. Modeled water flow volumes showed that the communities most at risk of flooding were those nearest to the drainage channels.

However, it is to be noted that a large portion of those who live adjacent to the city’s main drainage channel are the poor- mostly consisting of slum dwellers. So long as the socio-economic problems of the people are not addressed, there will always be people migrating from the rural to inner-city areas. This is a potential for more people to be exposed to floods.

The reality is, Accra is expanding. And it is expanding faster than ever. Should we desire to curb this trend and make the tough decision to limit its growth? If so what kind of measures will we need to check its growth? How do we spread Accra’s rapid urbanization among other urban centers in Ghana? What is clear, however, is that an increase in population directly impacts the demand for land.

 Ghana’s land tenure system is predicated on three systems. The first two are public and customary lands and the third, a hybrid of the two, referred to as vested lands. Customary lands, are owned by stools (traditional rulers), families, and in few instances, individuals. Almost 80% of land in Ghana is held under this system.

 The government under Article 36(8) of the 1992 Ghanaian Constitution recognizes the concerned chiefs and families as custodians of the lands that states:

The state shall recognize that ownership and possession of land carry a social obliga­tion to serve the larger community and, in particular, the state shall recognize that the managers of public, stool, skin and family lands are fiduciaries charged with the obliga­tion to discharge their functions for the benefit respectively of the people of Ghana of the stool, skin or family concerned, and are accountable as fiduciaries in this regard. (Government of Ghana, 1992)”

 One problem with our customary lands is that many come with land litigation issues. It is to be understood, however, that the primary cause of these issues is that they are driven by profit maximization by multiple actors. 

In truth, land in peri-urban Accra, the rural—urban transition zone, cannot be sold  because it is stool or family land. Fully aware that they are not entitled to sell the land, traditional rulers grant rights in the form of a lease (often ninety-nine years in length) to any person who approaches the stool or the family with the customary drinks and payments.

 Many of these rulers lease lands illicitly simply because they are the traditional and social gatekeepers and use their societal ranking to manipulate the land market to their own benefit. Land litigations have come not only to represent a stain in our societal fabric, but also they have come to mask the realities of our societal conflicts.

The state charges the Town and Country Planning Department (TCPD) with registering, planning and mapping layout plans of lands. The problem is there is an existential conflict between the state agencies charged with regulating land and the chieftaincies. This blatant disrespect towards the state is fueled by a need to turn lands that would have little economic value into profits.

 Incrementally, the re-allocation of plots to individual buyers is done through illegitimate processes: at the hands of self-styled surveyors and certain corrupt state planners. Ultimately, there are major discrepancies between the eventual turnout of the land and its originally intended purpose.

 Even when the town planners are notified of any developments on the land, there are still distortions between the submitted plan and the eventual. In a paper by Eric Yeboah and David Shaw on Ghanaian Customary Land Tenure Practices, a respondent from the Town and Country Planning Department (TCPD), Kumasi, noted that:

“Land allocated for building new schools are now being converted to develop shops … Areas which have been allocated for building new hospitals and clinics are being converted to private housing development … If you go to Tafo, Pankrono, Daaban and Ayeduase (which are all settlements on the periphery of Kumasi), you will have to count yourself lucky if you find any new development which conforms the existing planning framework … The chiefs have sold almost every piece of land … Develop­ments in these areas hardly reflect anything that is contained in the plan.”[1]

The indiscriminate giving away of ccustomary lands by the chiefs has been a major contributing factor the urban problems we face today. Lands set for open spaces, greenfield sites, play areas and sanitary sites, among others providing vital communal resources, are being giving away to private investments. The actions of certain chiefs who knowingly allocate land for purposes are inconsistent with the spirit of the prevailing planning policies, and this indiscriminate ‘give away’ have consequences. Some which are being manifested today. For the people living in rural and peri-urban areas, the unintended outcome is they are rendered landless, without any meaningful alternative source of livelihood – a situation which further impoverishes the already poor peasant farmers and further pushes them into migrating into the inner parts of the city.

The lack of a coordinated effort between the two involved parties, the state government and the traditional, has manifested itself as the perennial flooding problem we face today. There is, however, an emerging partnership between customary landholders and private real estate developers to hasten the process of land development. Truth is, that alone is not enough to eliminate the drive of would-be builders in Accra to take advantage of existing loopholes exist in our community property development regulations. Leon Krier, a Luxembourgish architect, architectural theorist and urban planner, said, “A city is not an accident but the result of coherent visions and aims.” In the case of Accra, this seems to be very much the opposite. The reality is Accra is a city of spontaneity rather than constructive planning.We need a constructive framework that integrates the needs of the people with the social objectives of the state government. Thriving cities are built on vision and implantation using spatial awareness as key resource for development. A planned city is a well prepared city. A planned city is one that gives political continuity towards a public goal.

If our long-term vision is to deal with the perennial flooding issue in Accra, we would need to take some short-term actions. Designing a spatial pattern that addresses citizens’ concerns is a means for delivering a better city. We need policies that ensure that the delivery of economic activities is not centered on Accra.

 The rains of June 3rd tore down everything in its pathway things we once held dear. The floods, however, renewed a new sense of hope to bringing an end to the menace. The rains are set to come again. It is part of a cycle. However, no one can tell if we could let loose a smile on the grounds that the issue has been solved or whether we should confirm our worst fears.

They say that every cloud has a silver lining and if there’s to be any silver lining, it would depend on us having the right policies on density, land use, public space and the layout of infrastructure and services.

The writer is a student of Lake Forest College in Chicago, Illinois, US

By Kobena Asamoah Amoah

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