Tragedy without Surprise: How Government Neglect Leads to Catastrophe

Grace Manning ‘21

Opinions Editor 

Last October while travelling to Bafoussam, the West regional capital of Cameroon, as part of my study abroad program, we took a detour to visit the small village of Bamoungoum. The village had just suffered a huge landslide that is believed to have killed around fifty people overnight due to torrential rains that come regularly during the Cameroonian rainy season. The village is built almost entirely on or directly under a steep mountain composed of the typical sand and clay mixture that is found in the area. It is unstable land, a space which is occupied by poverty-stricken, underprivileged Cameroonians who can’t afford to build their homes in more developed parts of the city and are forced to build on unsafe terrain. The dead included many children, as they were sleeping at the time of the flood, as well as several pregnant women and elderly people who were home at the time. Unfortunately, this tragic disaster is fairly commonplace in Cameroon and in other countries that are struggling to find space for their growing populations and allow their impoverished people to live under unsafe conditions.

The reaction to this tragedy was particularly striking as I was expecting to hear news of the President of the Republic, Paul Biya, or the Cameroonian government in general, striving to change building policy. As it stands currently, houses can essentially be built anywhere. There is nothing in place to stop people desperately seeking a place to live, from building on the edges of steep cliffs, under overhangs that threaten to fall at any point, and on land that is particularly susceptible to landslides and flooding due to heavy rain. However, the president addressed the issue by giving financial assistance and food to the homeless, attempting to excavate the area, and the whole ordeal pretty much left people’s minds. It is a particularly difficult situation because of the location of the landslide. The people who made their homes in the affected area were members of the marginalized population of Cameroon. They were struggling financially and, in this case, money or food given by the government often seems like the very best they could get after everything they owned was destroyed. However, this is a quick fix that won’t prevent such tragedies from happening again. The serious flooding that takes place during the rainy season causes evacuations of thousands of people from their homes each year, but nothing is done long-term to stop these problematic and dangerous areas from being built on in the first place.

A similar event took place in Brazil just a few weeks ago when the Brumadinho dam burst and collapsed, releasing mud and water and causing an estimated 270 deaths. Employees and officials were aware of problems and potential hazards with the structural soundness of the dam, yet no safety or precautionary measures were taken. Like in the case of the Bamoungoum landslide, this disaster was not the first of its kind in Brazil. The Mariana dam disaster happened due to structural issues that were not followed up on either. There are many other dams built exactly like these ones, around Brazil’s mining areas and close to cities and towns, just as there are many Cameroonian villages built in high-risk areas of the country. I believe that these are examples of government neglect for the marginalized and underprivileged populations. These events often occur in rural villages, in areas not often visited by the majority of the population and so somewhat forgotten. By putting restrictions on building in Cameroon and elsewhere and by implementing safety measures and proper surveillance on infrastructure, these catastrophes could be prevented from happening.

Photo courtesy of Grace Manning ’21

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