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Sierra Leone: Hard Lessons from Disaster
August 29, 2017 (170829)
(Reposted from sources cited below)
"The calamity that struck Sierra Leone on Aug. 14, when Sugarloaf, the conical
mountain overlooking the capital, Freetown, collapsed in a mudslide that swept away
buildings and killed at least 400 people, was shocking but not entirely surprisingly.
It is important to be blunt: The tragedy was entirely man-made." - Lansana Gberie
With deaths last estimated at just short of 500, with some 800 still missing, the
death toll from the Sierra Leone mudslides far exceeds that from the Texas floods
still ongoing, or from the Grenfell Tower fire in London in mid-June. Yet, in each
case many observers have pointed out that each disaster had been years in the making,
predictable in advance, and largely man-made. The locations make the unequal level of
international attention also predictable, but the hard lessons to be learned apply
both in rich and poor countries.
For Houston and Freetown, the common element is an "extreme weather" event, becoming
more and more frequent worldwide due to climate change. No one can predict which coastal city
will be the next such case or the scale of the disaster. But that more such
"unpredictable" disasters are coming is a near certainty. For Houston, Freetown, and
London, another common element is the role of unregulated urban "development" in
increasing risk and the scale of disasters. And the scale of casualties and damage also
depends on the capability of disaster preparation efforts.
In addition, given that levels of outside response to a disaster depend in large part
on media coverage, the disproportion is strikingly visible as Freetown struggles to
recover depending on its own resources, routine responses from international
agencies, and small although numerous contributions from the Sierra Leonean diaspora.
Among donors listed by the United Nations, the United States does not yet appear,
although USAID has announced a $100,000 contribution and members of Congress have
requested that USAID allocate an additional $20 million. In comparison, the UK has
donated $5 million, China $1 million, South Africa $650,000, Togo $500,000, and
This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains two articles focusing on the hard lessons to be
learned from the Freetown mudslides, as well as a short selection of additional links
for more background.
For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on Sierra Leone visit
For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on the environment and climate change, visit
http://www.africafocus.org/docs15/sl1501.php, on the role of lost
tax revenues in increasing Sierra Leone's vulnerability to disasters, including
Additional articles of related interest:
Umaru Fofana, "Reflections on Sierra Leone's mudslide disaster," BBC, August 19, 2017
Richard Munang, "What we need to learn from Freetown's landslide tragedy:
To avoid another deadly landslide in a coastal town,
Africa needs to take collective action against climate change," Al
Jazeera, August 22, 2017
"Sierra Leone grapples with another big tragedy but the world doesn't seem to
care," Quartz Africa, August 25, 2017
"Africa: Freetown's Mudslides and the Slippery Slope of Urban Risk in Africa" by
Emmanuel Osuteye and Hayley Leck
IRIN News, August 23, 2017
For detailed updates from international agencies, see
The most recent UN Situation Update (August 25) is at
Representative Karen Bass and other members of Congress call on U.S. Government to
provide $20 million in emergency aid to Sierra Leone
"How Donald Trump and Elaine Chao Sold Off Flood-Control Policy to the Highest
Bidders," The Nation, August 28, 2017
If you are donating for Houston, also donate for Freetown
There are more than a thousand gofundme.com pages for the Freetown mudslides (see
One that has been referred to AfricaFocus by African
Communities Together is by the Union of Sierra Leone Organizations in New York
The group has also organized fundraising events in New York
One highly respected international agency working on the ground in Freetown is
Doctors without Borders
See article & donate link at http://tinyurl.com/y9qxnjv3
For Texas flood donations, here is a link to local Texas relief groups
++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++
Sierra Leone's Disaster Was Caused by Neglect, Not Nature
By Lansana Gberie
The New York Times, Aug. 20, 2017
[Lansana Gberie is the author of "A Dirty War in West Africa: the RUF and the
Destruction of Sierra Leone."]
The calamity that struck Sierra Leone on Aug. 14, when Sugarloaf, the conical
mountain overlooking the capital, Freetown, collapsed in a mudslide that swept away
buildings and killed at least 400 people, was shocking but not entirely surprisingly.
It is important to be blunt: The tragedy was entirely man-made.
This is a moment for grief, sympathy and emergency assistance to a country that has
barely recovered from a devastating Ebola epidemic three years ago. But this must
also be the time for Sierra Leone's government for once to take drastic measures to
make sure a similar disaster does not occur, which is all but certain to happen if
The Freetown mudslide was caused by a more deliberate human activity than is usually
associated with climate change and similar natural catastrophes. Sugarloaf, which is
still covered on the top, at about 3,000 feet, by lush vegetation, is part of an
allocation of supposedly protected areas officially called the Western Area Forest
Reserve. The mountain range overlooks Regent, Hamilton and Leicester villages
created by the British in the early 19th century for liberated slaves, as well as the
Guma and Congo dams, which supply the capital with water (though no longer
adequately, as a result of the deforestation).
Bodies of the victims are tranferred out of the site
of the mudslides in Freetown,
capital of Sierra Leone, on Aug. 18, 2017. (Xinhua/Chen Cheng)
But a fleeting post-civil war boom in the 2000s had its most lasting effect in the
area in the form of frantic housing construction that has led to the degradation of
the so-called protected areas, most of which have been built over. The rain forest
providing protective cover for the city below has been denuded by the buildings. This
destruction started at the former colonial settlement that Sugarloaf overlooks on one
side, Hill Station, which once hosted many charming bungalows. Hill Station was built
in 1901 as a Europeans-only residence, some 700 feet above Freetown. Malaria was the
reason for this segregation. Dr. Ronald Ross, whose research in Sierra Leone led to
the conquest of that deadly pathogen, had recommended that houses for Europeans
"should be built on elevated sites."
When Sierra Leone gained independence from Britain in 1961, the new postcolonial
elite inherited the coveted place and reserved it for top officials. However, when
civil war a great social leveler interrupted in the 1990s, thousands of people
displaced from the countryside flocked to Freetown. It became harder to control where
people built homes or lived, and harder still when the British-led International
Military Training and Advisory Team Sierra Leone constructed a sprawling barracks
behind what looked like a medieval rampart at Hill Station. The area instantly became
the preferred home for the country's elite, attracted by the security that the
British presence supposedly guaranteed. The Americans enhanced the area's attraction
enormously in 2006 when they opened an imposing embassy close by, built at the cost
of more than $40 million. Caddell, the American company that did the construction,
announces on its website that the embassy "has played an important part in the
healing process" of the war-torn country. So it might have.
The once-exclusive area is now home to rich and poor alike, oppressor and oppressed:
a mesh of shacks, occupied by the poor and dispossessed, alongside grotesque mansions
and perennially unfinished brick houses, their owners mostly politicians out of
favor, their expensive follies creating an odd impression of blight or ruin. Since
some of the Sierra Leone's most powerful political figures were culpable in the
degradation, the dire warnings by the country's environmentalists were guaranteed to
go unheeded by the government.
In a widely circulated article in 2014, Sama Banya, Sierra Leone's leading
conservationist, called on President Ernest Bai Koroma to enforce the National
Protected Area law, which his government enacted in 2012, by demolishing buildings
constructed on protected land and planting trees to replace those that had been cut
down. Mr. Banya warned that unless Mr. Koroma summoned the political will to act,
there would be "predictable dire consequences."
Two years ago, flooding in Freetown killed 10 people and destroyed several homes. The
misnamed Environmental Protection Agency, which is often complicit in some of the
most serious disturbances to Sierra Leone's flora and fauna, responded by setting up
ridiculous flowerpots on roads in Freetown that are often used by officials. Clearly,
this sort of superficiality appeals to them.
This time, however, Mr. Koroma should do something decisive to leave a legacy other
than an image of a helpless leader always appealing for and receiving foreign
donations amid national calamities. He must act now to prevent another deadly
flooding or mudslide by enforcing the National Protected Area law, which forbids
construction in protected areas like those around Sugarloaf. This demands real
action, including the demolition of those buildings and the relocation of the people
occupying them. If he fails, more of Sierra Leone's people are sure to die.
Liberia: Sierra Leone Mudslides - a Preventable Social Disaster or an Inevitable
By Phillip Garjay Innis
Liberian Observer, August 25, 2017
What lessons can African countries learn from Sierra Leone's devastating mudslides?
Was the disaster due to natural events or is there a social dimension? Is there
anything such as a 'natural disaster'? What can be done to reduce risks?
On August 14, 2017, torrential rainfall caused a hillside to collapse in Sierra
Leone's capital city. This torrential downpour triggered mudslides that killed
hundreds of residents and destroyed properties. As of August 19, 2017, the death toll
is placed at 467, with approximately 600 still missing.
Heavy rainfall is not a strange phenomenon in Sierra Leone. The country experiences
heavy annual rainfall and is ranked 12th globally in annual precipitation by
rainfall. Sierra Leone received over 2,500 mm of rain from 2013 to 2017, according to
the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).
Sierra Leone is therefore familiar with heavy rainfall. Torrential downpours are
common in August and September. The country has also experienced disasters sparked by
heavy rains in the past. In 2015, floods killed 10 people and left thousands
How could a torrential downpour lead to a disaster in a country accustomed to heavy
'Naturalness' or a 'Social Causation' of the Disaster?
Since the news of the disaster, the widespread interpretations tend to focus on the
'naturalness' of the event, as exemplified in the phrase 'natural disaster'. The
natural hazards that triggered this disaster, the torrential rains, floods, and
mudslides,are dominating our attention. Headlines like 'Sierra Leone mudslides kill
461' (Telegraph UK), 'Sierra Leone death toll now up to 450 after mudslides' (Daily
Mail), and 'Sierra Leone Braces for More Floods Amid Mass Burials' (Bloomberg) all
highlight the natural occurance that led to the disaster.
But is there anything natural about disasters?
As contentious as it may sound, many hold the view that there is no such thing as a
'natural disaster'. Hazards, such as floods or mudslides or hurricanes or
earthquakes, are natural phenomena. But disasters are not. Whether a natural event
will lead to a disaster will depend on whether that natural event will interact with
exposed and vulnerable people and assets. For example, floods in an uninhabited part
of the Sapo National Forest in Liberia will produce no disaster while floods of the
same magnitude and intensity in the slum community of West Point in Monrovia, Liberia
may lead to a disaster.
The 'natural' causes of disasters cannot be detached from the 'social' aspects of
disasters. Humans have always earned their livelihoods in locations that combine
opportunities with hazards. For example, the slopes of a volcano are fertile for
agriculture but there is a risk of a volcanic eruption. Floodplains or slopes of
hills provide cheap land for housing but there is a risk of flooding or landslides.
In many cases, the poor can only afford to live in unsafe slum settlements in and
around the cities where they seek their livelihood as daily wage menial workers or
The vulnerability of people to hazards in the congested cities of developing
countries is a result of a mixture of factors including the prevalence of informal
settlements, the presence of urban poverty, marginalization, increasing settlements
in disaster-prone areas, lack of disaster preparedness and early warning, among
People who are constrained to live in adverse social and economic conditions in urban
areas are prone to suffer from the impacts of hazards and extreme events. People are
vulnerable not only because of the geophysical factors but also due to the way that
assets, income, and access to other resources, including knowledge and information,
are distributed between the different social groups.
But the understanding of vulnerability to disasters in African cities tends to be
restricted mainly to the geophysical or natural triggers, with the socioeconomic and
political factors largely ignored.
What are the probable causes of the August 14 disaster in Sierra Leone?
The impacts of the August 14 mudslides are still being assessed and there is no
comprehensive evaluation yet regarding the 'structural' and 'non-structural' causes
of this disaster.
But while heavy rainfall and the mudslide are natural hazards, many are indicating
that environmental degradation and lack of appropriate infrastructure are to blame
for the intensity of the mudslides.
Almost a million people live in and around the forested mountain regions in Freetown.
The authorities were aware of the potential threats to people and assets on the
slopes and there have been some efforts to reduce the risks. Deforestation of the
hilltops and slopes of the mountainous regions had removed the essential service and
protection that trees provided in anchoring soil on the ground. The Global Forest
Watch states that Sierra Leone has lost nearly 800,000 hectares of forest cover in
the past 10 years.
So, one can safely assume that environmental degradation is largely responsible for
the devastating mudslides. But there are other equally crucial factors to consider.
One key contributing factor for the disaster was the lack of disaster preparedness
and early warning. Lives could have been saved if there was an efficient disaster
preparedness program and early warning mechanism in place. For example, several news
outlets reported that the Sierra Leone's meteorological department did not issue a
warning to prompt evacuations from areas susceptible to disasters before and during
the torrential rainfall from August 11 to August 14. No warning was issued even
though Sierra Leone had received three times more rainfall than expected during the
rainy season since July 1, 2017. No warning was issued despite the three consecutive
days of the heavy downpour from August 11 to August 14. There was no planned
evacuation from the affected area even though a clear risk was evident.
Disaster preparedness was the main reason why there were so few casualties in Cuba
from the effects of Hurricane Matthew in 2016 while the lack of disaster preparedness
was the major reason why the hurricane had a devastating effect on Haiti. Both
countries were hit hard by the hurricane, but 470 deaths were reported in Haiti while
Cuba did not record any death as a direct result of the hurricane.
Poor urban planning is also a factor. Freetown is plagued with a longstanding
challenge of poor urban planning and development. Construction is poorly regulated,
building codes are not enforced, and urban planning is practically non-existent. Lack
of livelihood options is forcing people with precarious livelihoods to settle in
unsafe areas. Accelerated development is leading to impervious surfaces that cannot
retain water due to the paving of surfaces and clogging of waterways.
The prevalence of poverty in Sierra Leone is also a contributing factor for the
hazard turning into a disaster. Poverty reduces resilience and tends to exacerbate
the effects of disasters. Sierra Leone is one of the poorest countries in the world
and the bulk of its citizens lack the capacity to engage in disaster risk reduction
activities on their own. For example, wealthier people may have the capacity to
construct disaster resilient buildings; the poor will not have such a capacity. The
poor are more concerned with meeting the demands of their daily lives rather than
focusing on disaster risk reduction activities. The lack of land tenure in informal
settlements will also make it difficult for the poor to invest in building disaster
What can be done to Prevent Future Disasters?
African countries engaging in disaster risk reduction activities must consider both
the 'structural' and 'non-structural' approaches to risk reduction. Structural
approaches will include the engineering interventions such as the construction of and
maintenance of hazard-resistant infrastructures while non-structural measures will
include efforts such as early warning systems, evacuation programs or insurance
schemes for affected individuals.
Firstly, there is a need for a legislative framework, especially for
building/construction codes. A legislative framework will coalesce legal reform with
key policy processes which will determine the priorities and mandates of responsible
institutions and further explain the roles, rights, and responsibilities of
stakeholders, including the national and municipal authorities, construction
companies and building owners. An enabling legislation will also impose a fiduciary
duty on institutions to implement the building regulations.
The International Strategy for Disaster Risk (ISDR) Resilient Cities campaign has
highlighted building codes as a key component of disaster risk reduction for cities.
For example, Ethiopia's Building Code 1995 (EBCS-8) provides a strong legal framework
for safe buildings, and the code contributes directly to the disaster risk reduction
endeavors by guaranteeing that buildings are disaster-resilient. In Turkey, the Law
on Land Development Planning and Control 1985 guarantees that geological studies must
be conducted before construction permits are issued.
Secondly, more should be done to tackle illegal construction in overcrowded informal
settlements. Construction in hazard-prone areas must also be banned. In Turkey, for
example, areas with high seismic risks are excluded from development. Building in
flood plains or deforested slopes must be curtailed due to their hazardous nature
while reclamation of mangrove swamps around urban centers should be restricted
because of the important water retention services these swamps will provide.
Thirdly, disaster preparedness and early warning signals must be improved. This will
be crucial to coping with unexpected, sudden onset disasters such as the mudslides of
August 14, 2017, in Freetown. An information dissemination infrastructure should be
established to improve the knowledge of residents of urban areas and such information
dissemination infrastructure should consider where residents can easily obtain
information from, what actions they should take in the event of sudden onset hazards,
and locations of safe zones in the event of a hazard event.
Cuba is an example of how thorough disaster preparedness can prevent casualties from
disasters. The country has a mandatory hurricane drill every May in anticipation of
the hurricane season. During the onset of Hurricane Matthews, the country broadcasted
warnings about the advancing hurricane on television and radio. People were
adequately informed about the evacuation and other safety procedures. While hundreds
of homes were destroyed, no deaths were reported as a direct result of the hurricane
due to the country's level of preparedness.
Furthermore, the capacity of disaster risk reduction institutions must be enhanced.
For example, the Sierra Leone's meteorological department did not issue a warning
ahead of torrential rainfall or any safety or evacuation procedures for the affected
areas. Many institutions in African countries, including municipal authorities, are
often under-funded and are unable to deal with the myriad of hazards.
The enforcement capacity of relevant authorities, especially for building codes must
be enhanced. The reduced capacities of authorities to enforce building codes is
engendering the situation where unscrupulous contractors can flout building standards
or where poor and marginalized populations can settle and construct homes in unsafe
areas. Enforcement is often lacking due to a combination of various factors such as a
lack of resources on one extreme or a conscious dereliction of duty on the other
It is also important to initiate a disaster micro-insurance scheme for residents to
enable them to easily have access to affordable life and health insurance in the
event of disasters. The micro-finance should also cover the loss of assets since most
of the poor households also use their homes for their economic activities. While
disaster insurance is a good risk transfer method for increasing financial resilience
to disasters, there is still an evident gap in understanding how disaster insurance
works in the context of a developing country as it has only been applied in countries
with established insurance markets.
It is also important that the public authorities become more involved with waste
management and the maintenance of infrastructures such as drainages. Proper
management of the drainage systems and improvement of the existing sanitary systems
will prevent the spread of diseases during floods or mudslides. Burst septic tanks
spill-over and garbage in drainages will contribute to pollution and the outbreak of
diseases in the event of a disaster. The waste collection and disposal system should
also be improved.
We can point to a plethora of causes for the devastating mudslides in Sierra Leone:
chaotic development caused by the rapid unplanned urbanization of Freetown,
deforestation of hilly areas, poor urban planning and development, lack of disaster
preparedness, widespread poverty levels, among others.
To avert similar disaster from occurring in African cities, there is a need to look
beyond the geophysical and structural/technical causes of disasters. It is important
to also understand what forces socially-disadvantaged people to live in risky areas,
as well as factors including rapid population growth, unplanned urbanization,
unsustainable land use practices, land availability/unavailability, and land costs.
It is also important to consider the capacity of governments to control urban
development, prepare for future disasters, and address the glaring poverty levels
that are making people more vulnerable to disasters.
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