Frank Tackie talks on the urban mess
The city floods of October last year caused the death of nine people, widespread misery and displacement, and massive financial loss to businesses.
At the time Mayor Vanderpuije announced that plans were underway to ensure that floods of this magnitude are “consigned to history”. What can be done to prevent a re-occurrence?
David: Let’s talk about Accra. What are the challenges?
Frank Tackie: I think the first challenge is that people haven’t understood the merits of town planning. You see, fundamentally, the city planning office or the town planning department is a judge in a very crazy situation of conflicts; how to manage land efficiently.
Basically, there’s going to be competition – you’ve got your land and I’ve got my land. Let’s say my land is next to yours. I want to use my land for a five star hotel but you look at your circumstances and say I want to use my piece of land for a public toilet. How are the two compatible? I want to use mine for a five star hotel but you think that look, you want to do a car-washing bay there.
By allowing you to do yours, you devalue mine. So somebody has to be a judge. That is how sensitive and important the town planning function is. To be a judge and to compose all of this like an orchestra into something that benefits the national economy. There is a dichotomy between land ownership and land use. I own the land but I do not have absolute right on what to use the land for.
People don’t understand this. They assume that once I go and see the chief or the family, I’ve signed the documents and I own the land, to hell with everybody. And that is the basis of our problem. You wake up this morning, the next thing you see someone is clearing some land way off the Kasoa road.
He has seen the chief, he owns the land legally and he decides that he wants to do a primary school there. That’s it. But he’s forgotten that he is actually extending the infrastructure base beyond the capacity of Electricity Company of Ghana (ECG) But ECG, for lack of good governance, will follow where you go and pay and get the poles, so they themselves are their own worst enemies.
The Water Company will also follow and on and on we go – and so the sprawl. You look at the size of Accra, the geographic size of Accra, and you look at the population. There’s a mismatch. We can actually, conveniently, have the whole of Accra’s population of 3million plus within about 1/3 the land area of Accra. That will still leave us enough vegetative cover to protect the run off when it rains, and the flooding will slow down.
There will be enough to have food security around Greater Accra Region so the cost of food importation would go down, we would still have the rural economy, and the people in the outlying villages will still be working on their farmlands.
So what we’ve done is just mess all of that up. We’ve lost all the vegetative cover, lost the rural ecology, lost urban agriculture – everything is gone. And we are finding ourselves in one huge conglomerate which is ungovernable. Now with the N1 Tetteh Quarshie-Mallam completed, travel time from Winneba will effectively be around 30 minutes.
What it means is that we are going to accentuate the urban sprawl because it is going to be much cheaper for me to go and look for land at Winneba, and then I commute every morning. We’re not looking at distance. We’re looking at travel time, effectively – my travel time. Period. So once you also get the Achimota Ofankor road fixed, Amasaman, beyond, Nsawam to Accra, 30-45 minutes and you are there. And so the sprawl continues.
We don’t have the capacity to manage it and it’s expensive, too. Because with low density it means that if we want to move this city forward from cesspit emptiers carrying human excreta across the length and breadth of the city and discharging into the sea, and we want to go into sewage treatment technology instead, the cost per capita is going to be huge.
It will be uneconomical because the densities are far too low – because of the sprawl. So the cost of our infrastructure has gone up per capita – water and power supply costs. Costs to the economy that are avoidable. Look at the costs of not managing the water bodies around which should have been watersheds. The Densu – go to Nsawam, cross the bridge.
On the right you’ll see a Shell filling station where the passenger transport buses stop. Look behind it, see the Weija and see the amount of refuse, excreta, everything that is unimaginable going into the Densu – which costs money to treat. The cost of treatment has tripled over the past 10 years – for lack of good governance and management.
David: It sounds chaotic
Frank: It is. It is like a cancer that is not detected, and by the time you detect it, it’s too late – and we keep joking. It is a daily occurrence, the daily influx of people into Accra who come and will not go back. The number of kiosks and containers that are being fabricated on a daily basis that will be wrongly located. The number of illegal taxi ranks that will add to the traffic congestion.
The overused, over aged vehicles that are imported daily that will add to our fuel bill that we complain about. So we keep earning all the foreign exchange just to import crude oil. The roads are congested with small vehicles.
If you take 20 taxis off the road, you can replace them with an 80-seater bus. That is the way to decongest the city. We’ve been talking for ages – we have an Accra Central Area Redevelopment Plan approved by cabinet way back in 1993, with funds from the UNDP. All the drawings are there. So what happened?
It just goes on, people just skip, move on, do what they want. Sometimes there is no action at all and the issues are compounded. The timber market used to be on the outskirts of Accra. Today it’s in Central Accra. That tells you about the sprawl.
Those days we used to call it “hausa goormi”, the Muslim’s cemetery – a disused cemetery that became the timber market. The city has gone way beyond, but we still carry timber from the hinterlands, bring it all the way down into the core of the city, only for people to come here and buy the timber and take it back to the outskirts.
Why must we have a bulk breaking centre at Agbogbloshie, bring all the yams from Yendi and the rest, come all the way into Accra central -to the most ecologically fragile area of the Korle lagoon. Then the trucks come in from Mamobi and Achimota, buy the same yam and take it back.
David:And take it back?
Frank: They take it back to the suburbs.
David:Let’s talk about the floods.
Frank: Nature provides the rains. The question is to what extent are we able to manage the rain water, or what we call the run off? We have been doing it wrong all along. We’ve been looking at the engineering end of how do you get the waters out, but nobody is looking at how it happens that we have so much water coming down into the Odaw drain in the first place.
And where does it begin and where does it end? We are dealing with the end, or downside of the situation, but nobody worries about the upstream situation. The amount of illegal construction just on the Odaw channel – take a walk from Alajo and go all the way down to the foot-bridge of Apenkwa, Achimota and go beyond and see the amount of mechanics and so on.
The last floods that we had, for example, if you stand on the Achimota Bridge, you will see uphill – a fitter had his shop there and the rains brought down some of the vehicles. They rolled all the way down and blocked the channel – so there was ponding and then flooding. Sometimes it is ponding, they call it flooding. I mean, what we’ve been seeing in the recent the past, since 1994, really is not flooding.
These are human engineered problems, and they are avoidable. Most of this has got to do with ponding. The places are silted and the run off brings so much refuse and plastic, choking the canal. I mean these are things that are avoidable.
Floods of human disaster proportion, like we see in the U.S and so on, that we saw in Thailand and Bangkok, we haven’t seen that yet. Let me know how we will cope for one day with that. We were visited once with it in 1994 when the whole of Graphic road, Japan Motors, everything just went. It was as high as 3-4metres,I think, and for days Accra came to a standstill.
What is happening now is that we have worsened it with the run off in the sense that, beyond the boundaries of Accra, we’ve removed all the vegetative cover. If you are going towards Weija and you look on the scarps, Berekuso, all these areas are turning into estates, so people are clearing the vegetative cover at the expense of what they are calling real estate.
So when it rains, the water comes to Accra with such speed, such velocity. Then look at the roads: we’ve widened the roads; we’ve made it much easier for the rainwater to come on faster. I was shocked to see this new N1 from Tetteh-Quarshie to Mallam junction – the median is all hard concrete work. No vegetation, no trees have been planted. Nothing.
Then I go to Mali, or to Bamako – in this Saharan environment, it is so lush and green. You see the deliberate effort at planting trees there to make it as green as they can. And we are in the middle of this rainforest environment, and it’s all concrete, and we are happy with that.
Mr Tackie is an Urban planner
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