By Alhaji U. N’jai
Sierra Leone Telegraph: 24 August 2019
Every year the rainy season in Sierra Leone comes with its usual ferocity and destruction of lives and property. And every year, the response from government and society remains the same. Such business as usual attitude and approach must change, if Freetown is to remain a viable community, with people living and working sustainably, alongside the city’s eco-system and landscape.
This article in the Sierra Leone Telegraph, is a master class for government officials, policy makers and citizens, looking for an unbiased and honest understanding of the ecological, environmental and human challenges and threats facing Freetown – the country’s capital city.
The article discusses sustainable solutions and makes recommendations for government and citizens alike. As a scientist I do hope readers will find this master class useful , as a serious contribution to current debate.
The causes of Freetown’s annual flooding and disaster epidemic is multi-dimensional and complex. The city has essentially become a massive slum; and to create a viable and sustainable city of Freetown is the singular most important challenge the nation of Sierra Leone faces.
Flooding in Freetown is not just about the rains, garbage in the streets, poor drainages, hill side constrictions, or poor people squatting in disaster prone areas, or construction of more low cost housing. It is about a myriad of forces; environmental, social, economic, geological, geomorphological, land use planning, engineering, and above all coordinated radical, bold, technically sound, and transformational policies.
The news story scripts for flooding and rain related disasters in Freetown are almost the same in the last 5-10 years. Each time, we simply react to the looming disaster, hold emergency donor meetings, do some talk, make some noise about solving it, generate some funds, NGOs get in it, and so on but nothing to show for it in the end.
Hence, the long history of unlearnt lessons with flooding, disaster management, and transformational urban planning continues. The future of Freetown as a sustainable liveable city will require a radical transformational shift in the political ecology of the city.
Water resource management is central to that radical shift in our political ecology. Water in Freetown is a blessing; plenty of it in the rains, a curse from the risks of flooding, and stress agent from lack of it in dry season.
REVISITING THE PAST TO UNDERSTAND THE PRESENT
To understand Freetown of the present and challenges, requires delving into the past. The centrality of Freetown as a nexus for business and political administration dates back to its founding in 1792, some historians state it back to the Province of Freedom in 1787.
In 1787 about 400 enslaved Africans from the Americas, Caribbean’s, and beyond were sent to re-settle in Freetown on land purchased from local Temne Chief. They established the Province of Freedom (1787- 1789).
Eventually, the Freetown Colony led by the British was born out of the Province of Freedom between 1792- 1808. Freetown from 1808 to 1951 operated as a separate colony entity from the rest of country known as the protectorate. This separation also meant different political systems constitutionally defined each entity. Freetown colony was essentially Sierra Leone, serving as the administrative headquarters for British West Africa.
Despite having the coastal waters added to the colony, the dimensions of proper Freetown was largely from Ferry Junction (Up Gun area) to Congo Cross. At independence in 1961, apart from the so- called formal integration of Freetown with protectorate and adoption of a single constitution, the colonial structure was largely maintained.
Nothing was done to completely decolonize the colonial administrative structure, decentralize from Freetown or create a formal urban planning for the future growth of the city. Hence, the present-day problems of Freetown emanated from Independence and exacerbated over time.
In hind sight, our founding fathers were very busy consolidating power from the British, and did not put a lot of thought into the geographical, geological, environmental constraints of Freetown, which will eventually become the heart of the country.
Some of these constraints have been encountered by the British and had sought ways to address them. For instance, as early as 1916, much of the forested Peninsula area was declared protected zones due to the risk of landslides or flooding.
THE NATURAL AND HUMAN FACTORS DRIVING THE FLOOD EPIDEMIC
So, what are the underlying proximate and ultimate factors that drives flooding and risk of disasters in Freetown. It may not look obvious but geography is an important aspect and major constraint on expansion of Freetown.
The city is virtually a tiny strip of lowland mass sandwiched by the Atlantic Ocean and Peninsula mountains. This means that geographical expansion is either towards the coastal ocean areas or towards the mountains. Any form of human or land use activity on either end poses a lot of environmental risks, which I will delve on later.
Another aspect of geography that becomes important in the context of Freetown is geomorphology, which makes up the beautiful mountains and steep slopes around the city. These steep mountain slopes around Freetown are a blessing in the natural state and at the same time in the case of Freetown a curse due to unplanned uncontrolled land use activities.
Freetown, as a city records the highest rainfall in West Africa, thanks in part to the high altitudes that forces westerly winds to rise, form clouds and rain at the windward end of the mountains; something geographers refer to as relief rain. Well-rainwater also moves down slopes much faster, and the runoff is severely enhanced in slopes where land cover is depleted. By contrast, in the natural vegetated state, runoff is significantly reduced due to greater rates of soil infiltration.
In terms of mass flow balance, the rate of runoff far exceeds the rate of soil infiltration due to indiscriminate land cover clearance in the peninsular, hence risk of flooding downhill is extremely high.
In the discussion of geomorphology, slopes and mass flow, another factor that is highly important is geology. The slopes in and around Freetown in geological terms are still evolving and unstable, therefore the risks of mudslides or landslides are high with land use activities that exposes the top soil.
Human activities represent a major factor in the removal of protective vegetation cover and land cover degradation of mountain slopes in and around Freetown. Interestingly, human land use degradation of the protective mangrove swamps in the coastal areas of Freetown is even alarming. A sea level rise precipitated by climate change could be hazardous to low lying coastal locations of Freetown without mangrove vegetation cover.
Having discussed the human factors above, let us delve deeper with regards to Freetown and surrounding Peninsular areas. How did we get into this vulnerable situation with disasters in Freetown?
Who bears responsibility for the present situation? How has the present political ecology been shaped by the political economy of the state? What are potential courses of action that can be taken now to mitigate the situation?
To attempt to answer these questions, requires delving back into Independence at 1961. Freetown as a city was a colonial construct and never planned for the ensuing post-independence population boom.
Rapid population growth accounts for the destabilizing effect of human factors on Freetown.
Freetown’s urban population was roughly 120,000 at 1963 based on census data. From 1963 to 2015, there has been 8- to 10-fold increase in the human population, accounting now for over 20% of the country’s population.
Interestingly, the sharpest rise in the city’s population occurred in the period 1974 to 1985 and not during the 11 year rebel war (1991-2002) as conventional wisdom will expect. The sharp increase in population between 1974-1985 may likely have come about through early effects of neo-liberal economic policies, structural adjustments, globalization, corruption, and downward turn in the economy.
Again, post war Freetown’s population growth between 2004-2015 equals the period 1985-2004. Freetown urban and rural population now well over 2 million continues to boom as rural to urban migration continues.
In the 58 years since Independence, Freetown remains the central locus for political and business administration in the country. This is so despite the formation of local councils and attempts to decentralize the country through the Local Government Act of 2004.
The net effect of the high population growth has been significant ecological depletion and land degradation from uncontrolled, unplanned and indiscriminate human land use activities in and around Freetown.
The predominant driver in the ecosystem destruction and subsequent land degradation has been unplanned informal housing settlements in mountain areas or low lying coastal mangrove areas. These unplanned housing settlements account for over 50 percent of the greater Freetown.
The most planned part of the city runs from Up Gun to Congo Cross, which interestingly were the city limits of colonial Freetown. This goes against the grain of urbanization in most parts of the world, where the old portion of cities are unplanned and newer expansion are highly planned.
Apart from the rise in informal housing construction, the additional human population in and around Freetown has meant depletion of valuable forest products for timber, fire wood and charcoal for cooking, sand mining activities in coastal areas for building, clearing mangroves forest in coastal areas for firewood, charcoal or housing construction.
These activities individually or combined contributes to ecological hazard, depletion of valuable biodiversity, with disastrous consequences for human and animal populations.
Deforestation of land cover in mountain tops and slopes removes the protective barrier of plants over top soil, increasing run off, decreasing soil infiltration, reduced water retention in soils, and reduced evapotranspiration from depletion of watershed. This then results in greater likelihood of flooding, mass flow (soil, debris, and rocks), mudslides or landslides in the rains.
On the other hand, there is a greater risk of drought and water scarcity in the dries due to significant depletion of trees in the watershed. The decrease in evapotranspiration activities may also impact the amount and distribution of rain.
For instance, even though recent flash floods or landslides in Freetown could be attributed to higher than normal rainfall, the rainfall pattern has been largely uneven in the last few years. The rainy season has become shorter with intense few months of rain that are more disastrous due to manmade activities of land degradation.
Equally damaging on the ecological space has been sand mining along coastal beaches and clearing of mangrove vegetation along coastal tidal flats areas for construction projects, firewood or charcoal.
Apart from the loss of valuable biodiversity, impact on animals including fish and migratory birds, the removal of the protective barrier of mangrove forests and coastal sand has disastrous consequences from flooding associated with sea level rise.
The coastal low lying areas of Freetown are considered particularly prone to climate change related disasters linked to sea level rise.
Overall, the consequences of our indiscriminate human actions in Freetown has been significantly more flooding than previous years, mud and debris slides, and landslide as in the deadly August 2017 episode that killed over a thousand, displaced thousands of residents and destroyed over 900 homes.
Although the trigger for the August 2017 disaster was unusually heavy rains, the underlying factors were essentially human activities leading to land degradation impacting geology and slope stability.
The economic cost of disasters and post-disaster recovery are tremendous. Equally the cost on animal health, wild life, and biodiversity from rapid ecological destruction is huge; and I will not fully delve into this area here.
DISSECTING THE ROOT CAUSES OF THE PROBLEM
Although human population growth may appear to be an important driver of the flood epidemic in Freetown, the underlying factors are even more complex. It is a question of who bears the most responsibility here? Is it the people or lack of foresight and political will by successive governments?
It can be argued that the biggest and most significant factor in the recent spate of floods in Freetown has been the lack of a radical transformation plan for the city by successive governments of the country.
The elitist tendency among many has been to blame the people, heavy rains or even climate change and thereby mask their inadequacies at viable transformational plan. If we even accept the heavy rains as a factor, the rains have been intense but the overall duration of the rainy season has got shorter.
As discussed above, these shorter durations of the rain have lent itself to water stress or drought in the dry season. The truth lies in our inability as a nation since Independence to develop a sound blueprint urban plan that meets the needs of the present and future growth of the city.
Instead, the only progress beyond the colonial limits of the city has been uncontrolled sprawl; unplanned buildings in protected forest and mountain slope regions; unplanned settlements with no access roads, a market, a hospital or basic services for the community.
And the colonial political economy of forest ecology and land management that prevents community ownership is still in force.
In the colonial period, the British colonial masters declared much of the forested areas including the Freetown Peninsula as protected. In theory, this was good but in practice it was a hypocritical ploy to prevent indigenes or communities from ownership of their resources, thereby giving British businessmen unfettered access to timber and forest products.
Today, this arrangement of forest management out of the hands of the community members and operated by government, favoring big business and foreign entities continues. The indigenous community member’s ownership and management of their lands and forest products has not occurred.
Hence, communities marginalize from their forests see less value in forest products and conservation of the resources. Rather what has happened, is commodification of the land and forest products, which goes against community conservation practices.
Equally so has been the failure to decentralize the political and economic administration from Freetown. Even the most important government offices within the city are operating within old buildings created during the colonial period; and successive governments have failed to upgrade them to meet the current needs of an open government workspace atmosphere.
Interestingly, the lack of a radical transformation blueprint plan is worsened by several terrible polices, corrupt practices, and events within the political economy of the country, that have hurt rather than helped the city.
First, there is the neoliberal economic policies of the west that replaced the political grip of colonialism. We may have gained political “Independence” in 1961 but economic independence is far from it. Through neocolonialism and economic policies, the west has maintained an unfettered access to our resources.
The neoliberal economic policies of globalization and monetary policies promoted by IMF, World Bank and other international donors have deepened poverty in rural communities, displaced farmers from the land, as local small scale farming is no longer profitable; destroyed local production of any sorts, and made Sierra Leone an import dependent economy. This in turn, has spurned a rural to urban migration and population boom in the city.
In Sierra Leone, this massive process of urban flight began in the early 70’s with the bad economic policies of president Siaka Stevens; and reached high peak by 1985. The ensuing economic crisis and poverty, deepened with Stevens APC government, allegations of widespread corruption, nepotism, decadence and strife.
Because of this economic downturn, people from rural areas congested Freetown not from choice but from despair. For many of these rural migrants without the economic means to live in the city, turned to shanty settlements in coastal areas or mountain slopes, and as such gave rise to massive slum settlements around the city.
By 1990, Sierra Leoneans were lining up for food rations under president Joseph Saidu Momoh’s Government; it was the era of “toe line” for all things necessary; and people referenced the hardship as an additional trigger for the war. The war and total state collapse from 1990 to 2002 simply further accelerated the land degradation of Freetown.
Due to the war and restrictions on movement, people residing in and around Freetown turned to the forests for wood and charcoal. Displaced people from communities in rural Sierra Leone established squatter settlements along the coastal areas and mountain slopes. The land cover in rich forest areas like the Fourah Bay College Botanical gardens were depleted.
The construction of the British IMATT military installation and subsequently the United States Embassy, further fueled unregulated housing constructions in protected forest reserved areas of Regent, Charlotte and Sugar loaf.
The heavy commodification of the land continued post-war, exacerbated by strong economic remittances by Sierra Leoneans displaced in the diaspora and high corruption at private and public institutions.
The war and post-war recovery provided ample opportunity for huge investments and good will donations from the international community. These were funds often meant to support recovery efforts of various sorts of the country, which ended up in unscrupulous corrupt hands.
The end results was mansions on the mountains, slopes, and coastal mangrove areas that lead to further pillage of the land, weakening slopes and enhance disaster vulnerability of the city.
A second factor has been the lack of coordination in policies and enforcement by the government agencies that deal with land, environment and forest management in Sierra Leone.
The ministry of lands, housing and environment, the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAFF), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPASL), the National Protected Area Authority (NPAA), the Water Resources Ministry all operate with certain degrees of mandate but do not seem to speak to one another or coordinate efforts.
Nobody wants to take on the blame or responsibility for the degradation of land cover and unregulated land use in and around Freetown. For example, MAFF wants to protect the forests, while Ministry of Lands wants to sell it. The EPA will say they don’t have the mandate to enforce protection and that’s the domain of the NPAA.
Significantly, there has been a huge rise in informal settlements across the city; and begs the question of what the planning ministry is doing. It seems there is not a singular urban plan for the city with a blueprint for buildings, recreational areas, road networks, sewage disposal, water resources, public restrooms, and so on.
This lack of a singular transformational plan for land and forest ecology management, has cost the city and people dearly, with disastrous consequences such as the August 2017 landslide.
A third and decisive factor that gels with the second factor is corruption in land and forest ecology management. Everyone who has built in protected areas of highland forest or coastal areas has documents and paper work to prove ownership.
However, there has been no prosecution of any individual by successive governments. The corruption by public servants in these agencies with oversight of lands, environment, housing and forestry cannot be disassociated from poor wages and labor conditions.
The average monthly salary of a forest ranger is less than 800,000 Leones a month. This put many of them at a precarious position and disposed to taking bribes or engage in illicit activities to make ends meet. I have a feeling similar situation applies to those at the Ministry of lands with the unregulated and indiscriminate selling of lands in protected zones.
A fourth factor that has enhanced flooding in the city has also been the poor construction of roads and drainages. Storm water runoff moves faster in paved asphalt or concrete roads than on unpaved surfaces.
In the case of Freetown, you have heavy runoff from bare surface cover hills that meets paved asphalt or concrete roads with poor drainages. In addition, the runoff also erodes exposed top soil and brings it down, which ends up clogging drainages.
Hence, this makes it extremely difficult to control the storm water downhill and with enough paved asphalt or concrete surfaces, it just speeds down to the coast. The coastal areas of Kroo Bay, Susan’s Bay, Wellington, and more are severely impacted by such flood waters.
PROGNOSIS - WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
Overall, the biggest malaise with regards to Freetown and Sierra Leone has been our history of unlearnt lessons. In the period since independence, we have had ample opportunities as a nation to correct the wrongs, yet we have failed to take the radically transformative measures to fix Freetown.
This perennial failure to learn from lessons of the past have been the case nationally from war, Ebola to the deadly August 2017 landslide. At every turn or moment when transformational action should take place, we have turned to half-baked small minded measures addressing the parts and not the sum of the parts of the problem.
For instance, we embark on cleaning drainages and clearing trash as a quick fix for a problem that is much gargantuan and complex as discussed above. We have often turn to international donors, non-profit organizations and exogenous ideas or solutions to an endogenous problem.
We cannot transform Freetown from the backseat of external drivers. What is needed are innovative thinking, locally driven and utilizing natural resources of the nation to transform the most important settlement of the country.
A sustainable viable and green Freetown can drive significant economic growth of surrounding regions and the country. The process of transforming the city and surroundings can begin through diverse and inclusive community engagements at all levels, functions, and disciplines to produce a product that address current issues and a sustainable outlook for the future.
SO HOW DO WE MITIGATE THE FLOOD EPIDEMIC OF FREETOWN AND CREATE A SUSTAINABLE GREEN CITY?
First, we need a transformation urban development blueprint based on community engagements or inputs at levels, functions and disciplines that should radically address some of the vexing present-day challenges and future sustainable outlook for Freetown.
This should be multidisciplinary effort that brings together engineers, architects, urban planners, geographers, geologists, environmental scientists, forest ecologists, entrepreneurs, water resources, hydrogeologists, public health, social welfare, and so on.
It should ideally address the vexing issues of flooding, landslides, zoning codes, protected areas, sanitation and public health, congestion, transportation networks, housing, slum areas rehabilitation, recreational parks development, foot and bike paths, forest ecology and green space development, urban agriculture, water resource management, waste management, and so on.
The blueprint to be adopted must be endorsed by community members, stakeholders, all political parties to ensure implementation and enforcement of policies.
Second, significant efforts should be directed towards decentralization of political administration and creating new growth centers of economic activity. For instance, urban plan of Waterloo, Newton, Masiaka and Lungi on the axis from Freetown should be initiated; move significant administrative centers to these locations, and create light rail transit and bus services from Masiaka through Waterloo to Freetown. Lungi could be connected via improved 24-hour ferry services that shuttle passengers across to Freetown and back. This will also enhance economic potential of Lungi beyond simply the airport.
Additionally, water transport that links Aberdeen to downtown Central Business District (CBD), Wellington to CBD, and CBD to Lungi and various points around the peninsula will ease traffic congestion and thereby minimize the need for people to live within Freetown.
Third, building on the city blue-print, we must enforce zoning codes and clearly demarcate and designate a green belt in disaster prone areas. These will entail engaging geologists, geographers, ecologists, civil engineers, urban planners, hydrogeologists, and other disciplines to create an updated hazard profile and risk assessments for the city and surrounding peninsula areas.
Existing buildings in areas demarcated as disaster prone should be demolished and relocated to other regions. Active afforestation program of the green belt areas should follow both tree planting and allowing secondary regrowth of native vegetation.
Communities below the greenbelt must also engage in active tree planting, planting grass, and developing green spaces that slows down run off and enhance infiltration. This green space development should be an integral part of creating a green city scape around Freetown. Mangrove areas of the coastal Freetown should be repopulated with mangrove forests.
Fourth, we can create a series of reservoirs and dam systems in catchments areas and slopes along the runoff flow, wherein we capture and store excess water for utility in the dry season.
As a city that records the highest rain in the sub region, there is no reason why we should have periods of drought in the dry season. Each household should be encouraged to have a rain water harvesting or capture system and can be created at community level using simple compressed clay brick or local soil.
This allows us to take something of a disadvantage to an advantage for communities. The excess water stored in communities could feed into urban agriculture and gardening of vegetables for home consumption or market.
Fifth, the political economy of forest ecology management in the Freetown Peninsula and nationally should be radically reformed towards a community based natural resource management system. Forests are an important source of livelihood for residents and can be an important economic avenue for poverty alleviation.
The Freetown Peninsula has over 70 recorded medicinal plant species and several others of economic importance. Sustainable community-based management system can provide for local livelihoods from forest products and at the same time enable conservation of forest ecosystem.
As in the colonial system, the current centralized system of forest management by MAFF continues to prohibit locals from full utilization of their forest resources. Again, as in the colonial era, the argument to prohibit locals from utilization of forest resources is that they are responsible for deforestation.
Yet under the watch of MAFF and Ministry of Lands, we have seen massive land encroachment for housing developments and a complete failure of the system of governance. No one of the major institutions (MAFF, Ministry of Lands, EPASL, and NPAA) has taken responsibility for the land encroachments and failed governance in Freetown. Rather, poor residents of these communities, who are victims of the failed governance systems are blamed for deforestation.
Therefore, a sustainable forest management must take into consideration a decentralized community based natural resource management system along with reform of the governance system.
Moreover, there should be better coordination and clarity in the mandate of the various institutions (Ministry of Lands, MAFF, EPASL, and NPAA) charged with affairs of land management, forest management and conservation.
The ministry of lands, housing and environment should be dissolved and absorbed into Agriculture, EPASL and housing merged with MOPED.
Sixth, tackling the drainage issues of the city should include technically sound civil and environmental engineering designs into road constructions. Moreover, it must be backed by solid understanding of hydrogeology and mass flow of runoff in specific locations to minimize the effects of storm water on roads.
Areas that are prone to flooding could be provided with drainages that have depth and breadth to accommodate storm water. Additionally, sidewalks could be made broad with layer of grass in between to slow down runoff of storm water into drainages.
Seventh, going back to the blue print, zoning of the entire Freetown Peninsular should be undertaken and zoning codes enforced with severe penalties for defaulters. My hope is that merging housing to urban planning within MOPED should ensure proper urban planning and enforcement of building codes across the city.
A strong geographical information system (GIS) mapping of the city could lead to a proper urban plan with grids for residential, commercial and lots allocated for social services in communities.
Every town lot within city and surrounding could be on the grid with access roads defined and a road network established. Housing schemes could be established that promotes community low cost housing and restricts number of town lots an individual can own for family residence. Improve building interior and exterior architectural designs to maximize utility in small spaces and remove the current need for large amount of land with massive structures for a small family residence.
Eight, an improved GIS mapping should also enable the setting up of a city-wide disaster and flood alarms in each municipality. Based on the city-wide blueprint mapping, spatial data on geology, geomorphology, rainfall, and land cover could be integrated into a GIS system and threshold for flooding or landslides established. So for example rainfall beyond the normal threshold should trigger an alarm locally (a large horn or sound) in the community linked also to radio and Television. Such triggers will allow community members to seek shelter or move to higher ground, thereby minimizing human casualty.
Finally, better wages, salaries, and service conditions of civil servants entrusted with oversight or governance will minimize corruption and enhance enforcement of laws or regulations.
About the author
Alhaji Umar N’jai is a Senior Scientist, Lecturer, Panafrican Scholar, Founder of Project 1808, Inc., and Freelance writer ‘Roaming in the Mountains of Kabala Republic’.