Janet Ofeforpa was at her family cassava farm in south-east Ghana when overflowing water from the nearby Akosombo hydro-electric dam unexpectedly came rushing onto her land.
In a panic, she ran home to gather her children and the few belongings they could salvage and fled to higher ground.
The family is now among the more than 26,000 displaced by the floods. They are sheltering at a local school, unsure when or how they will be able to return to their land and rebuild.
“I have three children and I’m the only one who takes care of them”, Ofeforpa told Climate Home outside the school shelter. “One of them is Delali who I was helping prepare to go to university. All those preparations were taken away.”
Ofeforpa lives in Mepe, one of the towns that was hardest hit. Entire homes were flattened, crops were wiped out, schooling was put on hold and the flooding of toilets, cemeteries and rubbish dumps has led to a surge in typhoid and cholera cases.
The flooding happened because heavy rains had increased the volume of water in the Akosombo dam dangerously close to its limit.
In September, the government-owned electricity company which manages the dam – the Volta River Authority (VRA) – began what it calls a “controlled spillage” of water from the reservoir.
This is a standard practice after heavy rainfall that typically doesn’t have a significant impact on downstream communities. But this time it caused the worst destruction since the dam was built in the 1960s.
Climate change’s role
The kind of unpredictable and heavy rainfall which filled up the reservoir has become the new norm in West Africa, which scientists link to climate change.
But many locals allege the disaster was the result of government negligence too, with the VRA failing to properly warn people their homes may flood.
Togbe Korsi Nego VI, the Chief of Mepe, spoke to Climate Home from his home, where local volunteers had gathered to help distribute donated water sachets, rice and sleeping mats. His phone rang constantly.
“This is not a natural disaster. This is a man-made disaster,” he said. He added that “nobody came to warn us” and “the government has refused to take responsibility”.
Were they warned?
The VRA says it did put out warnings and deputy minister Freda Prempeh accused victims of ignoring them.
The VRA’s website claims that on September 8, it notified “key stakeholders” of potential spillage in the coming days.
Four days later, they issued a press release “notifying the public of the consistent rise in water levels and the need to commence spilling”.
But this didn’t reach everyone. Samuel Okudzeto Ablakwa is the member of parliament for North Tongu, which includes Mepe.
Despite his position, he told Climate Home he was not among the “key stakeholders” that VRA says it warned on September 8.
“They kept us in the dark,” he said. “I just saw a press statement on the twelfth of September [but] they didn’t talk about the water volumes [or] how significant this will be.”
Accusing the VRA of “recklessness and negligence”, he added “nobody came here to engage communities, to prepare us to evacuate”.
Lessons to learn
Ghana is not the only country where warnings have failed to reach those who need them.
In August 2021, 12 disabled people drowned in a care home in Germany when the River Ahr burst its banks, and the local district authority was accused of ordering an evacuation too late.
Ilan Kelman is a professor of disasters and health at University College London, specialising in disaster prevention. He said that it’s not enough for authorities like the VRA to be aware of a risk – they need to make potential victims aware too.
“A successful warning has to involve the people affected from the beginning, long before any hazard appears, so that they know exactly what the issue is [and] have the choices and resources to settle elsewhere,” he said.
Nella Canales, a research fellow at the Stockholm Environment Institute, said that it needs to be clear whose job it is to manage a risk like flooding.
“There has to be communication,” she said. “It’s not enough to just say that the person receiving the risk is now accepting part of the risk management responsibilities. The risk owner should be the one who has the capacity to manage it.”
After pressure from MPs like Ablawka, the government announced a parliamentary inquiry to investigate what went wrong.
Until then, people like Awusife Kagbitor, a flood-hit resident sheltering in a cramped classroom with 15 members of her family, are left to fend for themselves.
“A lot of people came to take our pictures with a promise to help,” said Kagbitor. “So far, they’ve spoken in the wind.”
Government and VRA officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment.