6 Years After June 3 Disaster, No Lessons Learned
Over half a decade since the worst man-made disaster in recent memory hit Accra, one struggles to find evidence that authorities and the general citizenry have learned any lessons at all.
Ghanaians home and abroad woke up on the morning of June 4 to the news that the previous night had occasioned a fuel station fire which has been made worse by a flood at the Kwame Nkrumah Circle in the heart of the city. The fire had started at the station but the flood made it worse.
It took days to realise the full extent of damage to life and property. These are lives and livelihoods we will not see in full swing again. By official counts, the inferno had taken the lives of a little over 200 people, about two times the number that died in the May 9 Accra Stadium stampede in 2001,
Nkrumah Circle is a densely-populated place that never sleeps, quite literally. And the compression of persons and vehicular traffic in this part of Accra meant that fires or even, air-transmitted viruses such as the COVID-19, would put many people in harm’s way.
During the time as well, we witnessed a major interchange under construction in the area. That infrastructure was needed but it also meant the clutter of people and environmental parts was therefore worse.
It had been raining throughout the year in 2015. The Chief Fire Officer of the Ghana National Fire Service (GNFS), Dr Albert Brown-Gaisie, categorically stated the rains and combustible materials in proximity to the fire was why we had the magnitude of catastrophe we had.
But unlike COVID-19 and the atmosphere, June 3, 2015, was a highly preventable situation. While visiting the site of the disaster in the company of then-Mayor of Accra Nii Oko Vanderpuije and Greater Accra Regional Minister, Nii Armah Ashittey, former President John Mahama remarked, and rightly: “We must sit down and strategise to make sure this doesn’t happen again”.
The former president was right and his view was shared by most well-meaning Ghanaians. Looking back from today, it would seem what has happened is that we have continued to mean well but not necessarily done well. We seem to be wishing away a problem that is as old as the Fourth Republic.
A five-member committee chaired by Justice Isaac Delali Douse was put together to investigate what happened and suggest a better way forward for city authorities and the government. Whatever they were tasked with, the Douse Commission had wrapped up its work by the first week of August of that year.
But in many ways, we already knew what caused the flood. Hordes of frustrated Ghanaians may not be able to tell you how the fire started and why it travelled as unforgivingly as it did. But the floods? We knew.
And if the National Fire Service boss was right about what made the fire worse, then the layman on the streets in Accra already understood the most important aspect of the puzzle: we tackle the flooding and we save lives.
In polite and elite language, the committee concluded that the overflow of the nearby Odaw River (because it was choked with litter) and the blockage of the Korle Lagoon interceptor (with litter) caused the flood. In simple terms, we had sanitation and infrastructure problems to attend to.
As many know, political rhetoric and showmanship are at their loudest right after disasters. The aftermath of June 3 was no different. Take a look at these three responses from political authority and ask yourself how far these responses have actually mitigated flooding in Accra.
First, the Mayor of Accra sought to make the point that his tough stance on sanitation in Accra would have prevented the flood. Vanderpuije had successfully lobbied for a National Sanitation Day to be observed across the country from 2014 and he made sanitation in Accra his biggest priority. June 3 gave some sort of moral importance to Vanderpuije’s sanitation crusade.
Another aftermath of the deadly fire and flood night was the passage of NADMO ACT 927 of 2016. NADMO, the body created in 1994 to manage disasters, was found to be incapable of rising up to a challenge as big as June 3.
One of the powers given to NADMO under the new law was the ability to demolish infrastructure that makes pre-disaster preparations difficult. That is, disaster managers could now bring down your building if it is found to be in a waterway, for instance. Hitherto to June 3, NADMO was not charged with that capacity.
Lastly, the Ministry of Science and Technology temporarily reinvigorated its war on plastic waste. An outline was even publicised to the people of Ghana on how we will win this war. The minister at the time was Mahama Ayariga, and in fairness to him, he was only responding to one of the recommendations by the Douse Commission which had suggested the banning of plastic in scenarios where biodegradable materials can be used.
What has come of these responses? Where is the energy that backed the sanitation crusade? In a recent interview, Vanderpuije blamed the death of his crusade on partisan politics. If he is right, we need to have soul-searching conversations in every corner of this country.
NADMO’s power to take the most drastic measures to mitigate disaster and prepare us for any eventuality is not an option the outfit seems to be discharging. If they did discharge it, one can imagine the chaos in Accra. Sadly, ACT 927 has become one of those constructively legislated provisions that will gather dust.
The least said about the war on plastic the better.
In the last six years, we have continued to see more floods and it is not out of the place of reason to say that we have grown numb to the perennial problem. Accra dwellers are expecting the floods and individually, are hoping they will not be the ones affected. That is the de facto national policy.
The lessons may be served again and do not bet that we will learn them.