The Legacy Of Sierra Leone’s Mudslides: A Spur To Action?

Even amidst the wreckage left by Hurricane Harvey, the world’s media turned to Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown to report on the devastating mudslides. Pictures of the raw red smear on the mountainside have accompanied tragic accounts of destruction. A survivor spoke to the BBC simply saying ‘I lost everything.’ The death toll is estimated at over 1,000, but there will never be any definitive figure with hundreds left missing and aid workers reporting that the force of the disaster left bodies in pieces.

As the international community looks on in horror at the extent of natural disasters around the world, South Asia has also experienced severe flooding, as nature seems to be ‘fighting back,’ which is how the BBC correspondent in Sierra Leone described it. We have long been warned of the dangers of climate change and the results visible this summer are just the beginning.

A significant difference between Hurricane Harvey and flooding in LEDCs like Sierra Leone lies not in the human or property cost. Although the WHO estimates that the real cost of natural disasters will rise on average by 6% a year, as more people move to coastal areas and storms get more severe, more and more people are insured. The U.S. government has subsidised funds to cover some of the costs and there is sufficient infrastructure in place already to begin the extensive clean-up operation. By contrast, Swiss Re, a reinsurance company, has assessed that only 8% of the 50 billion USD of damage caused by natural disasters in Asia in 2014 was covered by insurance. For those who have lost their homes in Sierra Leone aid in nearby villages from NGOs is the only lifeline.

Not only will those who have been left destitute receive no money to help them rebuild their lives, but the whole country will suffer economically with them. The worst natural disasters can permanently lower a country’s GDP by an average of 2%, according to the Bank of International Settlements, so the capital’s woes will have knock-on effects on a country already ravaged first by civil war and more recently by the Ebola outbreak. A natural disaster at this time is an urgent reminder of the need for change.

But what exactly can be done to prevent, or reduce the damage caused by these natural disasters? Freetown is placed between the mountains and the sea; it is a disastrous location for a capital and was chosen for its extremely large natural harbour and not its other characteristics. Alongside a landscape which makes infrastructure much more difficult and expensive to build, Sierra Leone falls under the Inter Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) weather band. This particular cloud formation causes Sierra Leone to have the highest annual rainfall rates in Africa, receiving as much rain as London typically has in a year in the rainy season alone.

There are, sadly, human actions which have exacerbated the naturally precariously positioned capital. Many are speaking of the mudslides as a man-made disaster as luxury mansions built around the crest of the mountain have uprooted trees and weakened the soil. Adulai Baraytay, a spokesperson for the president, claimed that Sierra Leone’s EPA had done a tour of the slums just a few weeks ago trying to plant trees and warn inhabitants of the dangers. According to Baraytay, they were chased away by the residents.

Whether the story is true, it points to the lack of collaboration at the heart of civic planning. Regulations have not been kept to when building in fragile soil and there is little to no effort to enforce them from the authorities. If this disaster actually changes anything, it must be first and foremost instilling a respect for building regulations.

This is not a change limited to Sierra Leone. Around southern Texas, the area hit by Harvey, planning restrictions had been flouted, with around 8,600 houses built on 100-year-old flood plains. Although there are measures to offset the tarmacking of prairie land, it has now emerged that many of these, such as installing ponds to collect the runoff from heavy rains, were ignored. Whilst contractors might be under pressure from private industry, or from government, to build quickly and cheaply, the tragedies which can ensue were visible in the Grenfell fire earlier this summer and are clear now.

Ensuring compliance is next to impossible and if the U.S., with far more extensive regulatory services and a much lower level of corruption, still has cases in which rules are flouted, the case for Sierra Leone looks bleak. Ranked 123rd out of 176, building regulations are not likely to be the priority for leaders doing business with the country. Clean water and proper sanitation are surely bigger priorities for the future when examining the remnants of the main slum that was destroyed, Kroo Bay, which had just five water pumps to serve around 15,000 inhabitants. In the wake of the disaster, the lack of sanitation will contribute to the spread of diseases and the WHO officer in charge of Sierra Leone has warned that the post-flood conditions will create a breeding ground for mosquitoes.

With the death toll likely to rise, and the clean-up operation beginning for Harvey, perhaps the flooding will give the world a much needed wake-up call. Of course measures which begin to tackle climate change are essential but many international bodies are lobbying and beginning to do just that. We have a long way to go but it is at least an issue which is taken seriously. Proper civic planning is rarely thought of as a vital issue to get right; perhaps Freetown might alter this perception. Or Freetown combined with the flagrant violations of regulations in Texas and Grenfell might alert us to the possible tragic consequences of not taking these rules seriously.

The West can do little to help the situation in Sierra Leone but it might be a case which encourages politicians to make this area a priority in business and aid negotiations. Human Rights abuses receive a great deal of press; building regulations should be elevated to the same level. If regimes were regularly challenges on these as well, many lives could be saved.