Guest post: Fire and Floods in Accra – What have we learnt?

Chris Minch is studying his MSc in Emerging Economies and international Development at KCL, where his interests include the role of innovation in sustainable development, and the sources of corruption. He has been involved with KickStart Ghana for 2 years and here he looks at the recent tragedy that has unfolded in Ghana. This post originally appeared on the KickStart Ghana blog.

Last Thursday, June 4th, Ghana experienced its worst disaster in nearly 15 years. As people sought shelter from severe flooding and torrential rain under the awning of a large petrol station, a fire broke out and the explosion that followed killed more than 150 people in the vicinity. Added to the 25 people who had died as a direct result of the flooding in the lead up to the explosion, the past week has been one of Ghana’s saddest and most tumultuous in living memory.

This accident has served as a reminder of the fragility of development in one of Africa’s most celebrated success stories. As the country nears the end of its three official days of mourning, it will be important in the coming weeks to analyse what caused this disaster and what can be done in future to avoid a repeat occurrence. Accra, as a vibrant and expanding city, has rightly been at the epicenter of optimism surrounding the rapid yet stable growth of Ghana’s economy over the past decade. Such growth inevitably brings challenges of its own and the floods/fire have highlighted the urgency with which these challenges need to be addressed.

We can look first at the causes of this accident. Some may dismiss the first element, the floods, as the freak result of several days of torrential rainfall. However, this is not the first time the city has flooded. Less extreme bouts of precipitation led to floods in both 2012 and 2014, showing the inadequacy of the city’s drainage infrastructure. This has been blamed variously on people building homes and businesses on the city’s waterways, as well as a failure to invest any significant funds in sustainable urban planning and upgrading the drainage systems.

The second element was the power failure that immediately preceded the fire. Ghanaians have become far too accustomed to power cuts and workers at the petrol station did exactly the same as every other time the power fails – they turned on their generator. Unfortunately, this time the generator appeared to create the spark that set the floodwater, mixed with petrol from the station, alight. Again this infrastructural failure highlights how Ghanaians have to confront a regular shortage of services that create unnecessary levels of danger.

Now is not the time to point the finger of blame, but for consideration and then action. President John Mahama has promised 50 million cedis toward a much-needed relief and recovery fund. However, it will take billions more over the coming years to adequately improve the quality of Accra’s amenities and services. Investment is an urgent matter and must be more credible than the hundreds of millions that were promised for reconstructing Accra’s drains in 2012 but never materialised. Urban planning and infrastructural development needs to take centre stage in the wake of this disaster. This planning needs to look to the medium- and long-term to lay a strong base to support further development in an economy with great potential. Otherwise, events such as this will continue to highlight the fragility of Ghana’s growth and expose the weaknesses in what is generally an extremely progressive and optimistic environment.

This is the year of the post-2015 Development Goals and sustainability is the word on everyone’s lips. However, without proper planning and investment in the very near future, sustainable development remains a fairly remote prospect, even for countries with the growth record of Ghana over the past decade. The old saying goes that ‘a stitch in time saves nine’. In this case it could have saved 150 and could save countless more in years to come.

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