Monday, September 17, 2012

Dampened Liberia

Monrovia is extraordinarily rainy, and this year's rains have been extraordinary. I was told by a professional in rain-water collection that its rained almost twice as much as usual this year. It's the second half of September, and yet the rainy season doesn't seem to be slowing down. It's still raining. One week in August, it rained more or less continuously from Sunday afternoon to Thursday evening, cycling from drizzles to downpours. Streets fill with water. The clouds are low and the light is dim-- as depressing as a Scandinavian winter.

I wrote about the rainy season last August, including the phenomenon of motorbike guys drying off in the wall-sized exhaust vents of huge generators, who are almost always designed to spew their filthy smog out into the street. The very same observation of the very same half-clothed huddle was mentioned in a recent Baobab column about Monrovia's rainy season, which is copied below.

A sudden stiff wind offers momentary respite from Monrovia’s punishing humidity, but it is only the harbinger of worse to come in Liberia’s capital. As huge rain-drops begin to spatter the ground, people scarper for cover. Motorcycle-taxi drivers abandon their bikes as the heavy sky empties its load.In the month of July alone, Monrovia sees almost double the rainfall that London does in a year. It is the wettest capital city in the world, fighting back the floods from May to November. During this period, those who drive to work in UN or Liberian government cars complain of patchy internet service and the increasingly pot-holed roads. But as ever, it is Liberia’s poor majority who really bear the brunt.Monrovia is a tropical, seaboard city with many communities built on Mangrove swamp. Mosquitoes multiply as the water level rises. On higher ground, wells overflow with the run-off from the city’s open sewers. Water-borne bacteria thrive; typhoid and dysentery spread. Worse still, the capital’s controversial mayor, Mary Broh, has chosen this rainy season to demolish many of the city’s squatter settlements. With this looming threat, new roofing seems a poor investment for Monrovians...Over the past fortnight, at the height of the rainy season, the main roads to many regional capitals have been impassable. With key arteries blocked, the prices of basic items spiral. In Voinjama, in northern Lofa County, a gallon of petrol can fetch almost $9. In Sinoe County in the south east, a single egg, at the end of its long journey from India, sells for more than 50 cents.Nine years after the end of the civil war, the lack of decent roads to places like Sinoe County seems a damning indictment of the government’s approach to rural development under President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Sinoe, after all, has attracted large international concessions agreements for Palm oil, gold and timber. Many locals, who were told the presence of these companies would improve their lives, now blame the swift degeneration of the roads on the weight of foreign firms’ lorries laden with the Liberia’s bounty.Back in Monrovia, smiles return as the rain finally stops. In the prosperous Mamba Point area, near-naked motorcycle-taxi drivers dry themselves by the heat of a big generator, still the main source of electricity for those with sufficient means. President Johnson Sirleaf has promised that work will finally begin this year to restore the country's huge Mount Coffee hydro-electric plant, which has been left derelict since 1990. Time will tell if Liberia's water curse can be turned into a blessing.

Not only does it give some description of the incredible wetness, but its astonishing effects, in every meaning of the word dampening Liberia: making most of the country's roadways impassible to vehicles, virtually shutting down the interior trade networks of the nation.

Added to this the extremely common yet no less bizarrely extreme aversion of many Monrovians to getting wet. People miss appointments, fail to show up for work, with the endless excuse, the rain. As if rain was actually acid to the skin, yet many Monrovians do not own any type of raincoat.

When the rain starts, the city slows. Not as you might expect in many cities, where inclement weather induces caution in motorists and causes traffic: quite the opposite, the chaotic roads of the city are devoid of pedestrians, waiting taxi passengers, and motorbikes. Traffic streams along the boulevard smoothly: more than one friend has told me he loves it when it rains because it is so easy to get from one part of the city to the other (especially now that traffic has gotten so bad). I often wonder, with an economy growing at over 8% per year, how much quicker it might be developing if it had better roads and more plentiful, less expensive utilities. I also wonder, in weeks like these, how much of Liberia's GDP is lopped off due to the rains, and the lack of preparation for it.

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