by Arnold Okoni-Williams

Sierra Leone’s wetlands extend for over 500 km along the country’s eastern coast bordering the Atlantic Ocean. This coastal landscape is characterised by an extensive network of estuaries, which include the Scarcies River Estuary, Sierra Leone River Estuary, Yawri Bay and the Sherbro River Estuary. These estuaries are fed by a network of rivers that originate in the mountain ranges of northern Sierra Leone and central Guinea.

Impact of Human Settlements and Activity on Coastal Ecology

As these rivers wind their way from inland mountain ranges to the ocean, they traverse diverse landscapes that include populated areas, agricultural land, and mining areas. Runoffs from human activities – sewage, industrial waste, chemical pollutants, tailings – are washed into the river and eventually deposited into the estuaries with severe consequence for the coastal ecology. In the past, heavy metal pollution upstream has resulted in a high mortality rate of fish in Yawri Bay. The large aggregation of seaweed along the coast (especially in the rainy season from July to September) is suspected to be a consequence of a combination of factors including heavy metal pollution, nutrient deposition and climate change.

The clearing of mangrove forests, for various purposes such as housing, agriculture and fuel wood, is common in many of the densely populated coastal zones. This is particularly evident in areas encompassing the Freetown coastline (mainly for fuel wood), and the Scarcies River Estuary (mainly for rice cultivation). The rate of mangrove deforestation has accelerated over the last two decades as a result of the rapid population growth across the Freetown Peninsula, which was initially driven by the civil war between 1991 and 2001, but is now increasingly influenced by rural-urban economic migration.

The situation is compounded by a growing demand for land in Freetown and the effects of climate change and sea level rise on the coastal zones. Freetown’s recent building boom has driven widespread land reclamation along the coastline and an unprecedented level of construction – it is no longer poorer populations looking for shelter and security, but people from all strata of society seeking investment opportunities.

This, coupled with deforestation-related sediment runoffs from the hillsides, is devastating the integrity of the coastal ecology. Untreated sewage, refuse and industrial waste are directly deposited into the coastline creating high nutrient levels that encourage growth and proliferation of algae, thus resulting in eutrophic conditions that choke and kill the micro and macro fauna of the coastal ecology. The combined consequences are far-reaching, including decline in coastal fisheries, unsustainable artisanal fishing and unstable local climatic conditions along the coast.

Climate Change and Disaster Preparedness

The effects of climate are now becoming more obvious. Many of the coastal communities and small islands along various sections of the coast have been affected one way or the other by sea level rise. A number of islands at Shenge on the southern coast of the Yawri Bay (including Plantain Island) and the mainland of Shenge Town are threatened by massive erosion. Konakridee town on the northern edge of the Sierra Leone River Estuary has experienced serious coastal erosion over the last twenty years. In each of these instances, settlements are threatened, properties and installations are lost, and livelihoods are significantly affected.

Recent incidences of flooding and localised landslides in Freetown have clearly indicated that Sierra Leone lacks the capacity to absorb the effects of such disasters. There is weak resilience, a low level of preparedness and inadequate adaptive capacity in the country to resist climate-induced natural disasters. Communities that are directly affected, including Susan’s Bay in Central Freetown, are increasingly experiencing adverse environmental conditions, especially flooding during the rains, and dwindling water supplies.

The Need for Advocacy and Institutional Change

Against this backdrop, the country has a developed a National Disaster Preparedness Report, a National Adaptation Programme of Action, and a National Wetlands Conservation Strategy, to set into motion the process for protection and conservation of the coastal environment. However, very little has been done so far in implementing strategies, plans and recommendations outlined in these documents.

One of the key challenges to coastal wetlands conservation is the high level of poverty and illiteracy among the population. These factors influence the degree to which the average citizen, who may lack the capacity to legally acquire land and construct sound housing, would comprehend and respond to basic environmental awareness. Weak political will coupled with a limited national budget for environmental issues, is compounding the situation. Presumably, both the local and national government leaders are not enthusiastic about implementing policies geared towards controlling vulnerable slum settlements for fear of losing popularity among voters.

The solution to coastal zone management and the protection of wetlands requires a long-term commitment, and a concerted inter-agency effort to establish practical mechanisms for sustainable coastal wetlands management. Firstly, coastal settlements that are most at risk and vulnerable to climate variability and natural disasters, should be relocated and the affected areas kept free from any form of human settlements. The rehabilitation of mangrove forests through planting and/or natural regeneration would contribute to restoring the ecological integrity of these sites. The urgency for action to protect and rehabilitate Sierra Leone’s coastline cannot be overemphasised.