YAOUNDE, Cameroon (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When the people of Yaounde talk about the heavy rains that have been battering the country, one memory stands out: the day in June 2011 when President Paul Biya’s motorcade was stuck in floods in the heart of Cameroon's capital city.
An intense downpour had overwhelmed the city's poor drainage system and caused flooding that proved impossible to drive through, even for the presidential limousine.
According to state television, Biya had to be rescued by helicopter. Others were not so lucky: the government announced the same floods had killed a woman and three children.
For the past three years, floods have been an annual occurrence in Cameroon and the capital city of Yaounde in particular, causing not only deaths, structural damage and widespread inconvenience, but also spiralling rates of water-borne diseases such as cholera and dysentery. According to Health Minister Andre Mama Fouda, there were more than 250 deaths from cholera in 2012.
Experts have been calling for the government to act to reduce the damages from Cameroon’s increasingly extreme weather, believed linked to climate change.
“In the absence of adequate town planning and an adapted drainage system, heavy and prolonged rains can be very catastrophic," said Marie-Claire Evina, chief of service at the Ministry of Environment and Protection of Nature's weather monitoring unit.
Now the government has answered that call with a canal. Running across Yaounde along the Mfoundi River, the 3.5-km canal is easing flooding by carrying water overflow from the hills surrounding the city into the river and out to sea.
“The rains in Yaounde and its surrounding villages have been disturbingly heavy in the past three years and coming in February, well before their normal time in July,” said Patrick Akwa, secretary general of the Ministry of the Environment. “With the canal to channel the water out of the city, the weather-triggered damages and risks will be limited."
The canal, backed by the African Development Bank (ADB) and the Cameroon government, the cost FCFA 22 billion ($44 million) to build and opened in June 2012.
Drivers and commuters attest that it does a good job of reducing flooding and allowing freer movement of traffic and people.
"No matter how heavy the rains, we now circulate with ease, unlike before when most drivers and pedestrians avoided the center of town because of floods," said taxi driver Victor Muluh.
City Council officials say the canal has also created new sources of income for those living along the Mfoundi River.
“The canal, with intersections and bridges for pedestrians, has triggered income-generating petty trading like the selling of locally prepared juice and food items, as well as carwash spots," says Albert Toue Evini, director of technical services at the Yaounde city council.
According to Evini, now that flooding is no longer a threat, the council also plans to construct a 10 acres of gardens and parking lots along the river.
CAN THE BENEFITS LAST?
But the ADB fears that the benefits of the canal could eroded if it is not properly managed and kept clear. During an inspection of the project in March, bank officials frowned at heaps of metal waste and other debris and pollutants they spotted in some sections of the canal.
Bank officials have called for concerted and joint efforts by the city council and the population to ensure the canal keeps working properly.
“We are insisting that (it) be kept permanently clean to allow free flow of water," said Amadou Kone, the bank’s administrator and spokesman for the consultation mission on the project. He said canal maintenance could provide employment opportunities for young people.
Some citizens blame pollution of the river and canal on the absence of punitive measures against such abuse, as well as a lack of adequate waste-disposal facilities in the city.
“Every city should have a junk yard,” said Fridoline Beilinga, 46, who lives in Olezoa, a neighbourhood near the canal. The new canal, she said, should be “an attractive tourist site rather than an eyesore that breeds mosquitoes and increases the spread of malaria.”
But while those in Yaounde worry about how to keep their new canal clean, experts point out that most of Cameroon still has no measures in place to deal with flooding. That means that as the rainy season begins, cholera still poses a big risk for the country, they say.
Charlotte Faty Ndiaye, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation’s country director, has called on local authorities to ensure adequate drainage facilities are put in place to avoid a repeat of the cholera outbreak in northern Cameroon and Nigeria last year.
In 2012, heavy floods in those areas aggravated a cholera outbreak, and together the flooding and disease killed more than 3,000 people, according to official figures.
Better drainage is needed in other countries in West and Central Africa as well, the experts said.
Elias Ntungwe Ngalame is an award-winning environmental writer with Cameroon's Eden Group of newspapers.