By Elias Ntungwe Ngalame
DOUALA, Cameroon (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Climate change and unregulated housing development are to blame for the devastation brought by floods that have so far killed at least 4 people and forced more than 80,000 from their homes in Cameroon’s economic capital, experts say.
Heavy rains that began on Monday triggered major flooding in the Douala V district area, submerging over 60,000 hectares (150,000 acres) of land and forcing thousands to flee for safety.
"Many families, mostly children and mothers who found refuge on rooftops, were rescued from the deluge by the army's firefighting brigade," said Beti Assomo, governor of the Littoral region.
As the rains persist, the governor and other local authorities have advised people to evacuate the area.
Though living in the swampy Douala V area is unlawful because of the high risk of flooding, the land is cheap, attracting many of the city's urban poor.
"Inhabitants of squatter settlements such as … the Douala V council area and other flood-prone areas of the economic capital live in constant fear of every drop of rain," Didier Yimkoua, an environmentalist and secretary general of the National Salvation Front political party, told the Cameroon Tribune.
DEMOLITION OF HOMES
On Wednesday, officials announced that anyone refusing to leave the Douala V area will be forcefully evicted and that most of the housing - much of it built with wooden plants and other makeshift materials - will be torn down over the coming days.
"We think the only way to put an end to such catastrophe in the future is to demolish and force people out of these risky and vulnerable zones," said Fritz Ntone Ntone, the government delegate to the Douala city council.
Experts say several factors, including climate change, deforestation, rapid population growth and poor town planning, are exacerbating the effects of the rainy season, making the current flood among the most destructive in the town's history.
With over 3 million residents, Douala is one of Cameroon’s most densely populated cities. Flooding is not uncommon in the area, but the scale of the devastation wrought by this latest flooding is unprecedented, said Ntone.
Many of the affected people say they have lost everything: their crops, livestock, homes and businesses. In some parts of flooded area, only the tops of houses and trees can be seen emerging from the water.
"This is one of the worst floods we have had in Douala, a clear sign that climate change is on our doorsteps," said Samuel Nguiffo, executive director of the Center for Environment Development (CED), a non-governmental organization focused on the environment and land rights.
Environmental experts say natural disasters in Cameroon continue to hit communities hard but local governments lack the ability and means to manage disaster risks adequately.
Cameroon's government needs to give local authorities more autonomy over disaster risk reduction and development practices to improve the situation, they say.
Cameroon recently announced the launch of a new meteorological and hydrological services network, which authorities hope will help the country combat the effects of climate change by providing governments with accurate, real-time weather information.
(Reporting by Elias Ntungwe Ngalame; editing by Jumana Farouky and Laurie Goering :; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's rights, trafficking and corruption. Visit www.trust.org/climate)