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Earth Sense: Floods a danger in Africa, as well as Atlanta

POSTED: September 23, 2012 1:30 a.m.

Sub-Saharan Africa appears in the news regularly with reports of human losses and suffering. This month, flooding hit the northern part of Nigeria hard. The Kano and Wudil rivers flow at the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, providing fertile agricultural land with their water and sediment.

On Google Earth, these streams are clearly visible, winding their way across the semi-arid landscape like green fingers. This isn’t a sparsely populated area. With 600,000 inhabitants, the city of Kano is the second largest in Nigeria.

In this so-called savanna climate, rains occur in the summer when moist air from the equator shifts to the north. But with the rain often comes flooding.

On Aug. 29, the river overflowed its banks, killing 15 people and displacing thousands from their homes. More flooding last weekend brought the count to 15,000 displaced from their homes.

Despite its vast expanse, the region just south of the Sahara continues to be a problem to its inhabitants and governments because the land that’s most suitable for food production is concentrated along the rivers. Elsewhere, it tends to be dry most of the year, with a landscape of isolated trees and bare soil. But it’s the very proximity to the life-sustaining rivers that can sweep away huge farming areas, as current events have just shown.

There’s no miracle remedy that would fix this situation. The communities can’t simply move elsewhere, since they’re already located on the best available land. Moving to the city life of Lagos is an option, and it comes with the promise of electricity and municipal services.

But that city of 8 million has its own problems. Those fortunate enough to secure employment soon learn about traffic congestion, a growing shortage of potable water, and inadequate waste disposal.

The same problems keep cropping up in the greater Atlanta area. Flood hazards in rural areas like Kano State are paralleled by urban flooding, which increases in magnitude when more and more ground is paved over. The Kano river floods could be seen as a natural event as the river reclaims its floodplain and the farmland on it. In cities like Lagos or Atlanta, flooding becomes an increasingly man-made phenomenon that’s caused by sprawling urban development. In both cases, the density of population is the key factor in the resulting losses.

Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a Professor of Physical Science and Director of Sustainability at Brenau University. His column appears Sundays and at


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