by Jamie Hitchen

Flooding in Freetown is an annual occurrence during the rainy season, when the city experiences some of the heaviest rainfall in the world. This year, the scale of death and destruction reached an unprecedented scale, as a landslide took a sizeable chunk out of Mount Sugarloaf engulfing properties and people on the hillside. Hundreds of people lost their lives, and many thousands were made homeless. While flooding in the city has become an annual event in the last two decades, the risks to residents are being exacerbated by a changing climate and the government’s failure to address four key components of urban management in the city. These include:

  1. Waste management: In 2013 MASADA – a private company – was given the contract for collecting and disposing of rubbish in the city but the unblocking of drains remains a problem. Government agencies, MASADA and Freetown City Council all continue to point the finger at each other for the failure. The outcome is that no-one does it. But collection is only part of the problem. Both Freetown’s dumpsites are full and should have been closed in 2009. Politics is getting in the way of service delivery in the city.
  2. Protecting the environment: A moratorium established to stop encroachment into protected areas of the Western Peninsular Forest has not been enforced. The Environmental Protection Agency’s deputy director Mohammed Bah said in 2015 that “irresponsible actions taken on the hills will affect the city greatly”. But construction in these areas continues with impunity, perhaps linked to the fact that many residents are politically connected. The rate of deforestation is alarming and the associated impacts are being felt across the city and not just during the rainy season. Freetown’s main water source, the Guma Reservoir is getting smaller every year; from ubiquitous amounts of water in August, the city almost runs dry by April. 
  3. Lack of urban planning: There is no urban planning to speak of in the city. The most common response of the government to floods has been to forcibly evict residents of informal settlements and move them to areas outside of the city centre. It is an approach which is more about being seen to be doing “something” than actually finding a long-term solution to the problem. The poorer residents of the city are the ones blamed for building illegally but alternatives are noticeable by their absence. The government needs to start seeing them, and dialogue, as part of the solution to the urban planning conundrum, not an obstacle to it. Freetown was originally planned for 300,000 residents but is currently home to over one million.
  4. Housing: The city has a chronic shortage of affordable housing; some estimates suggest 180,000 houses need to be built in the next decade. Even if this was to happen the urban infrastructure of the city would be unable to keep up; roads, electricity, water and sewage are all already at capacity and a finite amount of land further complicates the problem.

So why do citizens continue to live in these areas if they know they are putting themselves at risk and that the government has demonstrated little interest in improving the situation?

Informal settlements may fall short when it comes to design, legal status and comfort but they generally tick many boxes that are critically important for inhabitants. They are well located in relation to economic and transport hubs, provide space for home-based economic activities, possess longstanding community support systems and are affordable. This is not to say that slums provide acceptable living conditions; rather that slum communities exist where they are for a reason. Understanding this is vital if efforts to improve the lot of inhabitants are to be successful.

What next?

In the short term the government could do more to improve early warning systems and weather forecasting; resolve the political impasse and unblock drains; and start a process of dialogue with citizens about a long-term vision for the city which is inclusive of all residents. But if the government is unwilling to listen, then citizens, slum dweller associations and civil society organisations also need to find ways to overcome barriers to activism. These barriers include their own economic predicament and the fact that by speaking out they become more visible to the government and therefore more at risk of being targeted for strategies like forced removal. But at the same time these citizens are integral to the functioning of the city economy; driven as is by informal activity. Strikes could force the government to take their concerns more seriously, especially in an election year.

The underlying problems that exacerbate the impact of flooding have been identified and solutions put forward, the time now is for action to be taken. How that will happen is not yet clear but if Sierra Leoneans are to avoid having the same conversations year after year in August, something needs to give.

Jamie Hitchen is policy researcher at Africa Research Institute and a member of the Lost Freetown Collective. He tweets @jchitchen. For further analysis written by Jamie click on the links below.