/ 20 August 2022

The Republic of the Congo ignores climate threat

People walk on a street partially destroyed during a flood caused by torrential rains, on in Brazzaville. At least 13 people died in the Republic of Congo and two dozen others were injured after this flood caused homes to collapse in southern Brazzaville over the weekend, authorities said on December 10. AFP PHOTO GUY-GERVAIS KITINA (Photo by GUY-GERVAIS KITINA / AFP)

Madzou does not look forward to the rainy season. Living in Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of the Congo, means facing regular natural disasters. 

Heavy rain drives erosion and leaves houses buried in mud, or sweeps them away. He lost his house in a recent downpour.

For those with money, the solution is simple: move away. But Madzou can’t afford to leave with his 12 children. “I am retired,” he says. “I have nowhere to take them.”

People say the government has failed to help. Paul Okana, a district chief, says residents collect money to build defences to slow down erosion, and to help people after floods. “Unfortunately, it is not enough.”

In March, three people died in flooding in the Manianga district. Because Brazzaville is wrapped along one side of the Congo River — in view of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s capital, Kinshasa — there is little space to move that is out of reach of floodwaters. In some cases, families have taken to living in large dugout canoes.

Madzou’s Djiri district is one of the hardest hit in the city. Its municipal councillor, Lavy Sekangué, agrees with the sentiment that the state is not doing enough. But he still expects that the state will “come to our aid”.

For millions of people around the world, the constant pressure of disasters, such as those faced by people in Djiri, eventually forces them to leave. They then become climate refugees, a term coined in 1985 by Essam El-Hinnawi, of the United Nations Environment Programme, to describe people who have been “forced to leave their traditional habitat, temporarily or permanently, because of marked environmental disruption”.

Although the term is used increasingly on the world stage as floods, droughts and other changes force people to move, it is rarely invoked by leaders in the Congo Basin. Critics dismiss ministries in charge of environmental issues as vehicles to glean aid from rich countries at international climate summits.

In 2019, more than 100 000 people were left displaced by flooding in northern Congo. The government appealed for international assistance and the World Food Programme provided aid.

In January 2020, just before the Covid-19 pandemic, citizen journalists showed that the corniche of Brazzaville was disintegrating because of heavy rain. This cement wall holds back the Congo River. 

It was opened for public use in 2016, just before the presidential election that led to the re-election of Denis Sassou Nguesso. By 2020 it was crumbling into the river.

The government was quick to distance itself from accusations of graft and cutting corners, instead blaming climate change and illegal homes. But residents were equally quick to return the conversation to corruption and shortcuts in construction, which meant infrastructure has not been able to handle climate change.

According to the World Meteorological Organisation’s State of the Global Climate Report, ecological disasters have caused more than 23-million people a year to relocate over the past decade. The majority of these have been within their own countries.

The World Bank projects that climate change will drive 143-million people in Africa, Latin America, and South Asia to leave their homes by 2050.

Many come from poor regions that have contributed little to global warming — and rich countries refuse to pay for this damage, while also making it harder for people to move around the world.

In Brazzaville, it means people remain reliant on their own communities as the state joins other countries in abrogating its duty to its citizens.

 This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper produced in partnership with the Mail & Guardian. It’s designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.