The misfortune that comes with landslides and flooding has hit Sierra Leone, one of the jewels of Africa. May this moment of pain forever be etched in our memories as Africans as a lesson and moment of wisdom.
To proceed let’s put things in perspective. In Sierra Leone and across Africa, the science is unequivocal. Climate change as a contributory factor, alongside man-made elements like deforestation & encroachment, to such disasters is no longer an abstract issue. According to the US National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center, Sierra Leone has received an unprecedented amount of rainfall this year at three times the normal seasonal rainfall. Such torrential rains are a clear sign of the changing climate. This August, the height of the rainy season, Freetown received an unprecedented average of 539.9 mm of rainfall. With a land size of 356.9 square kilometers, Freetown had an average of 190 million cubic meters of rain water to drain. This extreme volume of water combined with human factors like encroachment on natural environment e.g. creeks, wetlands which are the natural drainage & storage of flood waters, construction on flood prone areas, inefficient drainage systems among others cumulatively precipitated this disaster.
No city in Africa is immune
In early 2017, new data from the U.K Met Office, the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) shows earth’s temperature has increased to about 1.1°C above pre-industrial levels. This is dangerously close, just 0.4°C away from the 1.5°C threshold set by the Paris Climate Change Agreement to prevent worsening climate change effects. In this trend, the vulnerability of Africa’s coastal cities is unprecedented. Sea level rise is projected to hit coastal cities – 14 percent higher than the global average by 2100 for the fast approaching over 4°C warming scenario. The impacts will stretch far and wide beyond Freetown to expose millions to risk of flooding. By around 2050, high numbers are projected in coastal cities of Mozambique (5 million), Tanzania (2 million), Cameroon (2 million), Egypt (1 million), Senegal (0.5 million), and Morocco (0.5 million). Such flooding will reverse economic and development gains with the ensuing health impacts and damage to infrastructure, loss of tourist sites and disruption in food supply, and exposure of populations to elevated food prices with loss of livelihoods and strife.
On ecosystems degradation, Africa loses up to USD$68 billion annually. Meaning the continent’s natural buffer against such impending climate change effects is being lost at a rate of about $180 million daily.
The science is clear. The escalating climate change knows no boundaries. Coupled with the degrading environment, countries across Africa need to urgently address these dual challenges, to forestall similar impending disasters in future. This is the logic behind the universal, global response to climate change called for under the Paris Agreement. Sierra Leone, classified as the third most vulnerable country to climate change, stands to benefit from being part of this global collective action. And it is among countries that have ratified the Paris Agreement demonstrating its resolve to combat climate change. Africa as a whole has shown global leadership in responding to climate change.
Practical immediate solutions
The good news is that practical solutions have been successfully applied across Africa. In Rwanda’s Geshwati area, a land suitability and use map is informing policy decisions to relocate vulnerable communities from previously encroached natural environments and high risk areas to safer habitation areas. Considering that agriculture is the main stay of these communities, this plan is also informing Ecosystems Based Adaptation (EBA) agriculture techniques that the communities can safely engage for livelihoods without degrading the area. Simultaneously, the plan is guiding restoration of previously degraded catchment areas using EBA techniques like agro-forestry, planting of indigenous trees among others to stabilize soils and slopes, and regulate flood waters. This has eradicated landslides that were a common phenomenon in the area.
A similar two-pronged strategy has been successfully applied to build resilience in Mozambique’s coastal communities highly vulnerable to coastal flooding. Here, an investment of $120 per person to rehabilitate depleted mangroves and establish crab farming as a livelihood activity for coastal communities that were previously encroached. Mangrove restoration is a natural buffer against coastal flooding while simultaneously preventing future encroachment by providing alternative livelihood activities away from the mangroves.
Sierra Leona and other at risk countries can benefit from similar strategies by combining restoration of degraded ecosystems and developing sustainable alternative livelihood activities away from risk prone areas. Preventing the degradation of natural ecosystems is our best bet against mounting climate change disasters.
Long term solutions for cities
Africa’s cities face the fastest pace of urban population growth globally. This growth however does not reflect positively on economic growth, which is a key enabler to building climate resilience. For example, the World Bank notes that African cities are almost 30 percent more expensive than other countries at similar income levels. Housing is 55 percent more costly and food prices are 35 percent higher than in other low- and middle-income countries. Considering high unemployment and underemployment, more than half of all urban dwellers end up in slums. Sierra Leone is facing an urbanization rate of 2.9 percent and has 75.6 percent of the urban population in informal settlements. These urban poor stand out as most vulnerable and this needs to be urgently addressed.
A key solution is to diversify and decentralize socioeconomic growth opportunities away from cities alone. This is critical to eradicate the allure of cities as the only areas where one can access income opportunities. It is vital to decongesting cities and curtailing growth of informal settlements that are vulnerability hot spots.
Focusing on the catalytic area of Ecosystem based adaptation (EBA) Driven Agriculture led industrialization powered by clean energy offers an opportunity to diversify income opportunities to sustainable sectors at a minimum. Cumulatively, this amalgamation is projected to create an agro-industrial sector worth up to $1 trillion by 2030 while ensuring ecosystems are taken care of and carbon offset to ensure climate resilience. It is such diversification that will open up rural Africa, where 70 percent of agriculture takes place, to industrialization and creation of economic opportunities to relieve the pressure of urban areas.
The paradigm shift in motion
Actualization of this paradigm is a collective undertaking. It will take intervention of both state & non-state actors as called for in Section 5 of the Paris Agreement forming mutual partnerships to bridge policy and operational gaps. Through the Ecosystem based adaptation for Food Security in Assembly (EBAFOSA), county stakeholders are engaging to bridge critical gaps in aligning policy across ministry segments, and creating clean energy and special enterprise zones.
For example, through EBAFOSA, Sierra Leone is harmonizing finance, industry, energy and agriculture-sector policies to establish tax concession incentives for agro-based industries powered by clean energy in rural areas. These are set to attract investments to these areas to fuel job creation and relieve pressure off of urban centres like Freetown. They’re also creating pathways to affordable financing to fuel growth of sustainable businesses.
“Traveling is learning,” says an African proverb. Sierra Leone and other at risk countries stand a real chance of forestalling similar disasters by domesticating above solutions successfully applied by their counterparts across Africa. EBAFOSA through its strategy of Innovative Volunteerism offers an opportunity for country stakeholders to develop mutual partnerships towards a common end. The solutions are known and we have the means to implement them. Let’s arise to act in the best interests of Africa’s present and future generations.