The images from Sierra Leone following Monday’s flooding and landslide are heartbreaking, leading some to wonder how much more trauma the small West African nation can absorb.
It’s still rebuilding communities after an Ebola outbreak that claimed more than 3,500 lives before the World Health Organization declared its end little more than a year ago. It’s still indelibly marked by the years of a civil war that left more than 50,000 people dead, and now the nation faces a new humanitarian crisis in the wake of a disaster that also is no stranger to its hilly coastal communities.
The storms that swept into Freetown during the night continued a rainy season that’s been heavier than normal – three times heavier than normal – with a wave of relentless and torrential downpours that swept into the flood-prone city. The massive landslide at Mount Sugar Loaf brought tons of mud and rock down on homes that crowd the hillside, killing entire families asleep in their beds.
By Wednesday, the death toll had reached more than 400 people, a fourth of them children, while estimates of the missing range between 600 reported by Red Cross officials, to thousands according to the interior minister. No one really knows for sure as mass burials begin and bodies fill overwhelmed morgues.
“I am very disturbed by this national tragedy and with a heavy heart let me extend profound condolences to the bereaved families,” said President Ernest Bai Koroma in a televised address, one of several instances in which the president appeared visibly moved. “This is not a tragedy for you alone.”
Launching international relief efforts
Equally overwhelmed are Sierra Leone’s Red Cross emergency workers, UNICEF staff and others who by all accounts have performed well under the stress but need more resources to match the magnitude of the disaster. Neighboring Côte d’Ivoire is sending 1.5 tons of medical supplies to help care for those affected, while Senegal donated USD$100,000 to the relief efforts. President Alpha Condé of Guinea and President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria are among the regional African leaders who have expressed their condolences and support.
The African Union has called on all Africans, as well as the international community, to help Sierra Leone. On Wednesday, the European Union announced an initial €300 000 to help those most affected. There are about 3,000 homes that are destroyed; communities have been left without clean water sources, continued rain has made relief efforts difficult, and fears of new landslides are being assessed.
Amid the ongoing relief efforts, of course, emerge the voices of those who want to know how and why this happened. The simplest answers are that it rained too much, too fast in Freetown, an African city that has one of the highest annual precipitation totals on the continent. An equally proximal cause is that the deluge overwhelmed the city’s drainage system, and turned its streets and suburban valleys into swift and angry coffee-colored rivers. The saturated soils on Mount Sugar Loaf became unstable; witnesses report hearing the cracks and shifts, and then feeling the earth shake before it gave way. The reality is that “what happened” is not that simple.
Freetown and climate resilience
Sierra Leone is no stranger to deadly floods – particularly in August, the wettest month in its year with an average of 529.7 mm of rain. Yet those floods now appear to come with more intensity and frequency in a city that’s ill prepared to deal with them; severe events occurred earlier this year, last year and the year before that too.
It’s too soon in a grieving nation to demand accountability and action, but not to accept that Sierra Leone is among the world’s riskier nations for climate change impacts. It’s not because the nation is as naturally prone to risk as some others, according to a 2012 UNDP assessment. “Sierra Leone’s vulnerability is linked partly to its climate and geography specificities, but mainly to socioeconomic and environmental exacerbating factors,” it said.
Deforestation has been identified as a risk factor linked to landslides in particular, as is the practice of building settlements along the slopes of the nation’s hillsides. In Freetown, that poorly regulated construction has been driven in part by internal migration that swells the population of the urban center to some 1.2 million people, a practice that began during the civil war years some 15 years ago as the internally displaced arrived.
The city’s risk becomes intensive when an event like Monday’s rains stress its limited capacity for resilience, and the UNDP sees landslides becoming a more serious threat unless deforestation and land use are addressed. Yet the rain falls, and experts note that Sierra Leone is particularly vulnerable to rainfall variability. A recent study conducted by the School of Environmental Sciences at Njala University, working with the Sierra Leone Meteorological Department, confirmed that rainfall patterns are different, likely because of climate change. There is more rain overall, but the risk is really associated with how and when the rain falls – and when it does, how well the nation has prepared for the event.
The work of dealing with the tragedy in and around Freetown began with frantic rescues, appeals to international friends, and steps to ward off cholera or other disease outbreaks in the next phase. Where there’s hope amid the grief, though, is in knowing that the people of Sierra Leone can make different choices in the future – on construction, waste management and other issues – and reduce their risk of catastrophe in a climate-challenged future.