Sierra Leone has been ravaged by civil war, struck by Ebola virus and in August 2017 saw devasting flooding and mudslides killing hundreds of people as they slept. It is a country with massive poverty, illiteracy and, at times, an extreme climate. The UN is heavily involved here with their Development program (UNDP) running many projects to meet sustainable development goals. These link to climate change, deforestation and early warning systems, all of which could have influence with this catastrophe.
Sierra Leone has two distinct seasons: the rainy one and the dry one, it's that simple. The rainy season starts in May and ends in October. July and August can be exceptionally wet and humid; this is western Africa, where hurricanes are conceived.
In mid-August, heavy and persistent rains led to flooding and then massive mudslides on 14th of August. These affected the capital Freetown with the most severe mudslides occurring in a suburb called Racecourse, as well as the districts of Regent and Lumley. Here, thousands of makeshift settlements are home to the city’s poorest communities. It is thought around 3,000 people were made homeless and more than 400 people died as these homes were submerged or swept away.
A friend runs a charity called EducAid in Freetown and sent this update;
Yusuf is our Deputy Site Coordinator, and he lives near the Lumley School which is right in the middle of the affected areas. This is how he describes the night of the flood:
"We were sleeping. We didn't even know when it started to rain. The only thing that helped me was that I needed to go to the loo at about 2.am. It was raining heavily, and the place I was living was surrounded by a very strong concrete wall to protect any water from entering in the compound. That fence was broken by heavy water that came so fast. All I saw was water coming across the floor with great speed. In a matter of seconds, water was above my knee level. I could not open the door because the water was coming so quickly. I left the parlour and entered the bedroom to wake up my wife. The water followed me in the room. We could not get through the door. One of my windows was a steel window. We could not also pass through there. I came to the one that was having only wire mesh and I had to spoil it, and we jumped through there. The only things we could secure were our phones. It is a long story anyway."
The top photo is of Yusuf's home when the water started to subside the following day. Needless to say, for now, there is no way of returning home, and all his property has been lost.
As often with such events, there are many factors to look at, alongside just nature. Many of the hillsides have suffered deforestation, illegally cleared to build informal settlements such as in Regent. In the rainy season, waste washes down the hillsides and collects in the city, blocking drains. Climate change could be leading to longer, heavier spells of rain, and so bigger flooding events. From the 1st July, Sierra Leone has seen over 100cm of rain, three times the average, that's a metre. The UNDP has started projects to research how the climate change may affect many areas of Sierra Leone, also flood protection and management of deforestation areas so that the surrounding area can function in the future. Some of these forested hillside areas were supposed to be protected and not built on, so there are political questions around this tragedy.
Educaid - Many people in the country are often unaware of the human role in these climatic disasters, often exacerbated by deforestation, poor environmental management, and the risks of building in vulnerable areas. The least privileged in Sierra Leone have few options. Education must be part of the solution
Mr. Bah - deputy director at the country's Environment Protection Agency,
"until we stop dumping waste into drainages until we stop clearing the trees, we will always face severe consequences of climate change"
There are also plans to improve warnings in the country, with the issue of an Early Warning System EWS for western Africa being presented at COP17 . This flood came at night when people were sleeping and mostly caught unawares. These mudslides do occur each year but this was more severe than usual. Reading the Sierra Leone National Met.service website highlights frustration and lack of funds to do anything.
With a thin staff and few weather stations, the department was able to provide most of its assigned responsibilities especially in: Aviation meteorological services, Data and services for Agriculture, Marine, Construction, Hydrology, Tourism, Media, Public etc. All of these have been accomplished against the backdrop of a thin staff, poor logistics, and a restrictive budget. The dependence on government budgetary support and service has combined to make the Department a comparatively unattractive one. Those receiving services give nothing in return to the department at least to improve it either in logistics or incentive to the staff at least for service recognition since it is at the moment not yet autonomous.
As the rainy season continues, the threat of further flooding and so mudslides remains. Other concerns are for safe drinking water, as always after any flooding event, there is sewage everywhere. Cholera is already endemic, malaria and diarrhoea will spread. Help is desperately needed for shelter, food and water and medical provisions, on top of an already harsh existence, where life expectancy is only 48 years.
Educaid- "The chaos in the affected areas continues to dominate, but we are starting to be able to piece together the events of last week to determine where the greatest needs will be, so we can support each other in putting our lives back together."