How Can Sierra Leone Learn From Environmental Disaster? 3 Months On After The Mudslide That Claimed Hundreds Of Lives

Three months have passed since a major mudslide hit the Sierra Leone capital of Freetown. On the morning of August 14th, disaster struck. Heavy rains caused the slopes of Mount Sugarloaf to destabilize and slide downwards. Mud buried whole communities, killing over 500 people and leaving around 3000 homeless. Families have been torn apart, and hundreds are still being housed in temporary camps. Reparation and recovery have been slow, but life in Freetown is beginning to return to normal. While progress is promising, many have queried whether enough has been done to prevent future disasters occurring on such devastating scales.

Sierra Leone is used to heavy rain and flooding. On average, 3600 litres of rainfall occurs every year, and flooding is fairly common. However, previous heavy rainfall has not brought about the scale of devastation seen in Freetown last August. In explaining the extraordinary devastation witnessed, preventable human causes are being blamed. Freetown is a city founded by British colonial administrators, who designed it to house around 300,000 people. Now holding around 1 million residents, Freetown has far surpassed its intended capacity. This mass urban sprawl, combined with the mass deforestation of recent years is thought to have left densely populated communities vulnerable to heavy rainfall. Many campaigners are concerned that city that planners are not accounting for these factors in their future development and reparation plans.

Many have seen the disaster as almost entirely preventable. Thorsten Kallnischkies, a geologist for the United Nations Development Programme saw the mudslide as “90% man-made. Thirty years ago, no one would have been killed” (Al Jazeera). For Kallnischkies, the removal of almost 80% of the forested area on Mount Sugarloaf, and the subsequent construction of dense housing was a crucial reason for August’s devastating mudslide. Many fear that these lessons will not be learned during future developments. Jamie Hitchen of the Africa Research Institute has noted that the government response to floods has been “superficial and short term.” Builders have continued to build on protected areas of woodland on the hills surrounding Freetown which have been deemed “at risk.” The soil erosion caused by such projects has left thousands vulnerable to heavy rains. Furthermore, many families left homeless by August’s mudslide have already begun rebuilding their homes in the same places, dramatically increasing the risk of a repeat disaster. For Kallnishckies, living upon such land can be compared to “having a picnic on a motorway.”

Two main reasons explain why houses are continually built on vulnerable land. The first is poverty. Sierra Leone is a country where GDP per capita is $1400, and 60% of the population live on less than $1.25 a day. Consequently, most can only afford to live in the cheapest areas of Freetown. As resident Salim Bangura explained to Reuters, “the closer you go to the mountain, the cheaper it is.” It is precisely these hillside districts which are more vulnerable to subsidence during heavy rains. But for most residents, having a house is seen as more important than safety. The second reason for continued construction on vulnerable land is a lack of awareness among residents. Many residents are unaware of secure building practices, or the risk that comes with building on or below hillsides. Therefore, a logical solution to this issue is to raise awareness of the dangers of building on at risk land. This is something that has begun to materialize, with the Environmental Planning Agency putting out radio jingles which outline the human impact on the environment. However, formal education is also needed in outlining to residents the dangers involved with building in certain areas. Furthermore, the government needs to produce a more coherent and proactive housing policy. While restrictions have been put in place to prevent building in areas deemed vulnerable to heavy rains, this has not stopped developers constructing cheap houses in those locations. Additionally, talks of government backed mass-housing schemes in safer areas have failed to materialize. As a result, many residents distrust their politicians. In learning from August’s disaster, alternative housing for those on the lowest incomes needs to be provided.

Furthermore, this housing needs to be put in areas around Freetown where the risk of subsidence from heavy rains is minimal. As Freetown continues to grow, city planners will have a crucial role in ensuring development is done in a manner that takes environmental risks into consideration. In doing this, disasters such as the one seen in August will become rare.