Freetown drowns in failed urban planning

EPA/ERNEST HENRY

Residents view damage caused by a mudslide in the suburb of Regent behind Guma reservoir, Freetown, Sierra Leone, 14 August 2017.

Freetown drowns in failed urban planning


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The capital city of Sierra Leone, Freetown, is used to flooding, but heavy rain on August 14 proved disastrous, leaving hundreds of people dead.

“The floods and mudslide were caused by nature. But they could have been avoided or at least mitigated,” the BBC’s Umaru Fofana wrote on his Facebook page.

“If we hurt the environment, the environment will fight back. If we fail to plan, we plan to fail. It’s that simple.”

According to the BBC, Freetown was first established in the late 1700s, a home for freed slaves from the US and UK.

Its position was chosen not for what was on land, however, but what the sea could offer: the world’s third largest natural harbour.

As a result, Freetown ended up in an area of heavily-forested mountains, which has not been accommodating for a growing population – currently around the million mark.

“It is the highest density of people I have ever seen,” said Olivia Acland, a freelance journalist based in Freetown. “The amount of people when you walk through the streets, and the traffic. There are just people everywhere.”

According to Slum Dwellers International, many of those people live in the city’s informal settlements, of which there are more than 60.

Two years ago, Mohamed Bah, deputy director of Sierra Leone’s Environment Protection Agency, warned “irresponsible actions taken on the hills will affect the city greatly”.

“Until we stop dumping waste into drainages, until we stop clearing the trees, we will always face severe consequences of climate change,” he told Sierra Leone’s Standard Times Newspaper.

In a separate report, The Associated Press (AP) noted that many of the impoverished areas of Sierra Leone’s capital are close to sea level and have poor drainage systems, exacerbating flooding during the rainy season. Freetown also is plagued by unregulated building of large residential houses in hilltop areas.

Thousands of makeshift settlements in and around the capital were severely affected.

“The government has been warning people not to construct houses in these areas. When they do this, there are risks,” said Abdul Nasir, programme coordinator for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. “People don’t follow the standard construction rules, and that is another reason that many of these houses have been affected.”

Deforestation for firewood and charcoal is one of the leading factors of worsening flooding and mudslides.

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