Wednesday, February 10, 2010

What If It Happened Here?

The 7.0 magnitude quake that has flattened the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, should give East Africans a pause for thought. What if a similar quake hit here? How prepared are we? As it turns out, not very. And such an event is not as rare around these parts as some would like to think.

According to Professor Chris Hartnady, a former Associate Professor in the Department of Geological Sciences at the University of Cape Town, “Large areas of the African Continent are in an unstable, tectonically active, state and, especially in the mountain regions, substantial danger is posed to growing populations.” Between 1980 and April 2002, the continent was hit by over 50 serious earthquakes, resulting in over 23,000 deaths and injuries.

In the East African region, a number of destructive earthquakes, some causing loss to life, were reported during the last century. For example, the port city of Massawa in Eritrea was destroyed by an earthquake in 1921. Ethiopia has been rocked many times by major earthquakes such as the 1960 Awasa earthquake, the 1961 Kara Kore earthquake which completely destroyed the town of Majete and severely damaged Kara Kore town, the 1969 Serdo earthquake in which four people were killed and 24 injured, 1989 Dobi graben earthquake which destroyed several bridges on the highway connecting the port of Assab to Addis Ababa, the 1983 Wondo Genet and the 1985 Langano earthquakes which caused damage in parts of the main Ethiopian rift. In Uganda, damaging earthquakes include the 1945 Masaka quake in which five people were killed, the Toro quake of 1966 which killed 160 people were killed and damaged 7000 buildings, and the 1994 Kismoro earthquake which killed eight people. In Malawi, the 1989 Salima earthquake killed nine people.

East Africa's Great Rift Valley runs along a geological fault line which, though being stretched by forces that could one day lead to East Africa splitting from the main continent, has largely escaped major quakes in recent years. But this hasn’t always been so. Earthquakes of magnitude 7+ (equal to or greater than the Haitian earthquake) have been recorded in Tanzania in 1910, Kenya in 1928 and more recently in the Sudan in 1990. While in the past, the human toll has been blunted largely due the sparsity of dwellings, rapid urbanisation is increasing risks and costs of disaster. The East African Rift System (EARS) contains some of the most densely populated areas on the continent (e.g., Virunga Mountains region between Uganda, Rwanda and DR Congo). According to the report of an “Expert Workshop on Earthquakes and Related Geo-Hazards in Africa” held in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2004, a future recurrence of a major earthquake of the size of the 1910 event in Rukwa (at 7.4, Africa’s largest earthquake in the 20th Century) would have devastating consequences not only in these areas, but also in several cities (with dominantly Westernized types of construction) on the East Africa coast line, such as Mombasa (Kenya), Dar es Salaam (Tanzania) and Beira (Mozambique).

Alarmingly, this nightmare scenario has not shaken policymakers in the region out of their slumber. In 2007, after a series of earth tremors that caused panic in Nairobi, Major Stephen Sane, acting head of Kenya's National Disaster Operations Centre, admitted that Kenya lacked the basic rescue equipment and the emergency medical staff required in the event of a serious earthquake. "Our disaster preparedness appears to be whimsical. It has not been taken seriously at the policy level," he said. The then Architectural Association of Kenya chairman, Gideon Mulyungi, estimated that 90 percent of buildings outside Nairobi's city centre were not professionally built warning “we could have a major disaster on our hands in the event of a powerful earthquake.”

And, it seems, we are not learning the lessons of previous disasters. Following the American embassy bombing in Nairobi in 1998 which caused an adjacent four-storey building to collapse burying hundreds of people, the Kenyan government had to ask for help from foreign rescue teams. Though a Kenyan rescue unit was later sent for training in Israel, the government did not acquire the necessary equipment to look for bodies and survivors buried under rubble. As a result, when a building under construction collapsed in Nairobi 8 years later, again burying dozens alive, Kenya still sought Israeli help. As Margareta Wahlström, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR), has said "we often look at disasters as events that happen, then we go back to normal life." She added: “This is no longer possible due to the high cost of disasters.”

In the case of earthquakes, disaster-preparedness need not cost the earth. One important prerequisite is to tap into and expand the local knowledge base. According to the report from the 2004 meeting in Nairobi, while particular seismic events cannot be predicted, the general level of seismicity across broad areas can be forecast for up to hundreds of years in the future. Nearly all countries in the region now have regional seismic hazard maps, which can be used to identify the best (or the worst) place to locate buildings. It would thus be relatively easy to quickly find the most vulnerable geographic zones and populations, and commission further research to augment our understanding. This enhanced knowledge would help our scientists undertake rigorous, scientific, evaluation of large developments (such as big dam projects) likely to trigger damaging seismic events, and advise policymakers accordingly.

The experts proposed another low-tech and cost-effective means of reducing our vulnerability to quakes. During the 1910 quake in Rukwa, Tanzania, only German colonial buildings were destroyed or damaged. African construction methods proved superior. This implies that urban centres with dominantly Westernized types of construction are more vulnerable and would benefit from a traditional retooling. It is therefore important to study how traditional construction methods adapted historically to the natural environment.

A final measure identified is the creation of an informed public which can apply the geologic knowledge held by specialists. “In Africa, the need is not for sophisticated high-technology approaches, such as prediction research or early warning systems, but for better community preparedness to live with earthquakes so that the need to ‘predict’ is reduced.” In other words, earthquakes need not become major disasters and prevention is always better (and cheaper) than cure.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Redeemer vs Teacher: Towards the United States of Africa

African Union summits rarely escape a Muammar Gaddafi lecture on his pet project: the United States of Africa. The Libyan leader’s harping on the need for common government is derided by some as a plot for hegemony. The idea of continental unity, though, is not new and neither is the cynicism.

In a sense, Gaddafi is unwittingly summoning us to our etymological roots. The original meaning of the word “Africa” may be unclear, but, in ancient times, it referred only to the north coast of the continent, replacing the Greek word "Libya," to refer to the land of the Berbers.

It only encompassed the whole continent from the end of the first century BC. As it did so, it was slowly divorced from North Africa and soon confined to the region that, in less politically correct times, was also called Black Africa. According to Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, professor of African American Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, the conflation of Africa with sub-Saharan Africa “ultimately offer[ed]a racialised view of Africa as the ‘black’ continent... from which North Africa and especially Egypt [was] excised and attached to Europe.”

“Africa” no longer described a geographical entity, but was imbued with ideas of blackness and a mystical cultural unity. The transatlantic slave trade and the consequent forced immigration of millions of “black” Africans served to spread and cement this association abroad. On the continent, European colonisation had much the same effect. As Mwalimu Julius Nyerere observed, “Africans all over the continent, without a word being spoken either from one individual to another, or from one country to another, looked at the European, looked at one another, and knew that in relation to the European they were one.”

Slavery and colonialism also gave rise to Pan-Africanism, the idea that black Africans and their descendants belonged to a single "race," and shared both cultural unity and historical fate (a notion rejected by black American actress Whoopi Goldberg in 1998 when she declared: “I dislike this idea that if you're a black person in America, then you must be called African-American. Listen, I've visited Africa, and I've got news for everyone: I'm not an African. The Africans know I'm not an African. I'm an American.”)

Refined by the writings of Edward Blyden, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Marcus Garvey, Pan-Africanism became the orthodoxy among the emerging class of political reformers on the continent. The 5th Pan African Congress, organised in 1945 by Ghanaian leader Kwame Nkrumah, was attended by many scholars, intellectuals and political activists who would later become influential leaders in various African independence movements including Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta, Malawi’s Hastings Kamuzu Banda, and Nigerian leaders Obafemi Awolowo and Jaja Wachuku.

While generally endorsing the Nkrumah’s ideas on cultural and historical unity, the soon-to-be-all-powerful-potentates viewed political unity as a different proposition. In May 1963, many of them were among the 32 heads of state and government meeting in Addis Ababa to sign the Organisation of African Unity Charter, whose preamble prophetically stated 'we the heads of state' rather than 'we the people'. When Nkrumah simultaneously released his book, Africa Must Unite, (undoubtedly thinking it was appropriate for the occasion), the assembled presidents suspected an attempt to dominate the continent and realise Nkrumah’s ambition to become the president of a United States of Africa. As Nyerere later remarked, once “you multiply national anthems, national flags and national passports, seats at the United Nations, and individuals entitled to 21 guns salute, not to speak of a host of ministers, prime ministers, and envoys, you have a whole army of powerful people with vested interests in keeping Africa balkanised.”

The Tanzanian leader was opposed to Nkrumah’s approach. A strong proponent of East African federation, Nyerere regarded regional integration as the more realistic way to achieve continental unity. Nkrumah was implacably opposed to what he called “balkanisation on a grand scale” and deemed Nyerere a rival to his leadership of the continent, one who might eclipse him as the first African leader to successfully unite independent countries, following the failure of Nkrumah’s own Union of African States.
For his part, Nyerere dismissed Nkrumah’s opposition as “attempts to rationalise absurdity.” In fact, so eager was he for regional integration that he repeatedly told Jomo Kenyatta, the least interested of the three East African leaders, Tanzania would renounce its sovereignty right away if Kenya were ready to unite. During the 1965 Commonwealth Conference he declared that “if Mzee Kenyatta today says he is ready, then we will federate tomorrow.”

That, of course, never happened and the search for political unity soon took a back seat to moves towards economic integration. The 1980 Lagos Plan of Action for the Development of Africa and the 1991 treaty to establish the African Economic Community (also known as the Abuja Treaty), proposed the creation of Regional Economic Communities (RECs) as the basis for African integration, with a timetable for regional and continental integration to follow. The AU, established in July 2002 (at Gaddafi’s behest) to replace the toothless OAU, today recognises eight RECs including the East African Community.

Still, the rhetoric of political union remains. A 2006 study adopted by the AU proposed a three-phase, nine-year roadmap to the United States of Africa commencing “immediately after the decision of the Assembly at the next session of the AU summit” in Accra, Ghana. However, at the 2007 summit, the old arguments over regional versus immediate continental unification resurfaced with some (notably Libya) advocating a common government with an AU army; and others (especially the Southern African states) preferring to strengthen AU bodies and make them truly effective.

Following heated debate, the Assembly of Heads of State and Government issued the Accra Declaration, recognising the US of Africa with a Union Government as the ultimate objective of the AU and proposing steps towards this including rationalising the RECs and reviewing their relationship to the Union Government of Africa. All mention of a timetable disappeared. No AU Summits since have taken any firm decisions on the plan, each deferring the issue, for “final” debate to the next meeting.

Meantime, the RECs are pursuing further integration. They are linking up to fulfil the century-old dream of a trade zone spanning the length of the continent. In October 2008 SADC, Comesa and EAC, announced an agreement to create the African Free Trade Zone, grouping 26 countries with a combined GDP of $624 billion.

To quote Prof Zeleza, “‘Africa’ the map and the place is becoming increasingly ‘Africa’ the idea and the consciousness, buttressed by an intricate web of continental institutions.” In the second decade of the 21st century, the continent is “perhaps more ‘African’ than it has ever been… more interconnected through licit and illicit flows of commodities, capital, ideas, and people... more conscious of its collective identity.” As the pressures of globalisation continue to buffet and mould the continent, as they always have, a continental economy and, eventually, government is inevitable — with or without Gaddafi’s harangues.

Friday, February 05, 2010

The Great Migration