At least 141 people died in the Democratic Republic of Congo on Tuesday after heavy rains caused floods and landslides in the capital, Kinshasa, Congolese officials said. It was the latest in a series of deadly environmental disasters to hit West and Central African countries this year.
Many neighborhoods, major infrastructure and key roads were still underwater or in ruins on Wednesday after the previous day’s all-night downpour brought the worst floods in years to the city of 15 million people. Nearly 40,000 households were flooded and 280 collapsed, according to an official document seen by The New York Times.
President Félix Tshisekedi, who is in Washington for a U.S.-Africa summit, declared three days of mourning and said he would cut his trip short, flying back to Kinshasa on Thursday after meeting with President Biden.
West and Central Africa have suffered from devastating floods this year, highlighting a deadly mix of chaotic urban development and climate change faced by dozens of fast-growing African cities.
In Chad, the worst floods in decades displaced thousands in September and left the capital, Ndjamena, navigable only by boat. In Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, hundreds of people died, a million were displaced and at least 200,000 houses were destroyed in October after the nation’s worst flooding in a decade.
Scientists said in a report last month that the rainy season, which runs from April to October, had been 20 percent wetter than it would have been without climate change.
In Congo, many people died after houses collapsed in landslides in the early hours of Tuesday. The death toll of at least 141 victims, provided by Jean-Jacques Mbungani Mbanda, the country’s health minister, was preliminary, he said, as more victims were likely to be found in hours and days to come.
Videos shared on social media showed streams of muddy water carrying cars and debris, submerged buildings and roads cuts in half by mudslides. One person called the city “unrecognizable.”
Once a small fishing village on the banks of the Congo River, Kinshasa has grown into a megacity, one of the largest in Africa.
Many houses are in informal settlements built near the river, or on slopes prone to landslides. In 2019, dozens of people died after rains flooded low-lying parts of the city.
But the flooding on Tuesday was far more destructive.
A landslide smothered a highway that serves as a key supply route between Kinshasa and Matadi, a port further down the Congo River that is a crucial outlet to the Atlantic Ocean for the country.
African countries are among the hardest hit by climate change and are also urbanizing the fastest, posing major challenges as their ever-expanding cities face huge economic losses caused by environmental disasters. They have long struggled to secure funds for climate adaptation.
In 2020, the World Bank estimated that the transport disruption caused by each day of flooding in Kinshasa cost its households $1.2 million — a figure that didn’t include damage to infrastructure and losses for companies and supply chains.
This year, the heavy rains in Nigeria flooded at least 270,000 acres of arable land, leaving analysts warning of a further worsening of food insecurity in the region. Overall, 2.5 million acres of arable land was flooded in West and Central Africa because of above-average rainfalls this year, according to the U.N.’s World Food Program.
The organization warned last week that around 48 million people were expected to go hungry in the region next year, including nine million children, as governments grapple with the effects of climate change and the consequences of the war in Ukraine.
At the COP27 meeting this fall, diplomats agreed to establish a fund that would help poor countries cope with climate disasters made worse by large greenhouse gas emitters.
In Washington on Tuesday, Mr. Tshisekedi, the Congolese president, said “hundreds of human lives lost” should have been avoided, had polluting countries respected their commitment to fight climate change. He didn’t mention uncontrolled urban development as another cause for the casualties.
“Support must come from countries that pollute and unfortunately trigger the harmful consequences in our countries that lack the means to protect themselves,” he said.
Kudra Maliro contributed reporting from Beni, Democratic Republic of Congo.