by Federico Monica (translated by Carla Procida)

During the last rainy season, two big floods have hit the city of Freetown, inundating many urban neighbourhoods and resulting in at least ten victims.

Nothing new: the effects of decades of deforestation, lack of planning and indiscriminate development of land have led to a complex topographic context: a city of almost two million inhabitants squeezed between steep mountainous slopes on one side, and the sea on the other, and lashed by heavy rains for four months each year.

A fragile city, chronically poor in infrastructure and mitigation tools, which is, therefore, even more vulnerable to the disastrous effects of climate-related events, such as the massive landslide that hit the Southern periphery of the city on the night of August 14 2017, burying dozens of houses and hundreds of people.

A city which has just, surprisingly late, started to question itself on issues of risk prevention and mitigation, long analyzed in the academic context, but always forgotten or trivialized by local and national political agendas.

Risk Mitigation & Environmental Enhancement

The election of the new mayor of Freetown Yvonne Aki-Sawyer on March 2018 has marked a notable change in the way of administering the city.

Indeed, for the first time, the Freetown City Council has prepared a well-structured strategic plan, with clear objectives, concrete tools and, above all, time horizons and solutions for economic coverage.

After more than ten years since the state decentralization reform, a substantial power vacuum – with ministries not fully competent in certain fields (planning, land use, waste management and environment) and local entities still unprepared to manage complex and intertwined responsibilities – is finally filled. 

The plan, promoted by Sawyer, which focuses on the improvement of the city’s environment, on risk mitigation and the consequent strengthening of the city’s resilience – is called “Transform Freetown”.

A transformation that is more urgent and necessary than ever, but that will hardly be reached within the expected time, due to the scarcity of infrastructure and certain endemic challenges.

Transform Freetown: Key Initiatives

The very ambitious (not to say utopian) programme “Transform Freetown” comprises of a series of concrete initiatives that aim to radically transform the city within approximately four years, coinciding with the end of the current administration’s mandate in 2022. 

The plan is divided into four macro-areas of intervention named Clusters, each linked to international or national organizations that will contribute to their development: Resilience, Human Development, Healthy cities and Urban mobility.

While several objectives linked to traffic reduction, inclusive education or basic healthcare seem achievable, others, such as the construction of 5000 low-cost houses or the 50% increase of trees in the city, will be harder to reach.

However, it seems like the most utopian objective – i.e. reform of the municipal tax collection system (currently undertaken in an ad hoc manner) – would facilitate the achievement of the others by reducing tax evasion and quintupling revenue.

Despite the challenges, Transform Freetown represents a significant turning point for the city, especially as it relates to issues of resilience and risk mitigation, tackled in a systematic and concrete way for the first time.

One of the first positive outcomes of the new approach is the promotion of each of the city’s 48 Wards, (or administrative districts), as autonomous drivers of change.

Each Ward is now tasked with various activities, including mapping and the identification of risks and priorities, with the inhabitants themselves having the direct responsibility of spreading and applying best practices of resilience and risk mitigation in their respective communities.

These insights and best practices, led by local communities in collaboration with municipal experts and the army, are called “Flood Mitigation Activities”.

Flood Mitigation Activities

The Flood Mitigation Activities are a series of activities aimed at reducing the hydrogeological risk in the short-medium term, with the active participation of the residents.

Freetown’s deforestation and poor waste management have resulted in disastrous floods during the rainy season, caused by the overflow of clogged creeks or by the insufficient capacity of drainage channels.

Preliminary mapping and historical analysis were conducted by local communities to identify the riskiest areas in each ward.

The activities, realized by teams made up of workers and municipal experts, soldiers and citizens of the neighbourhood have resulted in different levels of maintenance work of the drainage networks, by cleaning the channels, which are often improperly used as landfills, from trash and earth.

The cleaning initiatives have also included several road bridges, many of which have supporting structures that are insufficient for seasonal storm surges and have historically been the riskiest spots for floods affecting entire neighbourhoods.

These preventive measures, together with excavation of new channels, become more intensified at the start of the rainy seasons.

In addition, during the rainy season itself some teams of experts and soldiers are active in emergency interventions either signalled by residents or aimed at restoring channels and drains as soon as possible after floods. This is a fundamental activity to prevent the recurrence of disasters caused by daily rains in the summer.

An additional initiative that has been put in place for the environmental enhancement is reforestation: if the objectives of increasing green areas by 50% by 2022 and of planting 20,000 during this year appear to be too optimistic, this initiative still represents a historical turning point, after decades of indiscriminate and uncontrolled felling of trees and shrubs.

Sierra Leone now follows in the wake of other mass reforestation initiatives such as the ones recently promoted by the Ethiopian government, or the Great Green Wall proposal that would stretch from Senegal to Eritrea.

The Cleanest Zone Competition

An interesting incentive for participation is that of the Cleanest Zone competition: a challenge to identify which city  neighbourhood can show the greatest improvements in waste management, environmental resilience and urban restoration.

Every district is invited to organize a punctual waste collection in line with the municipality’s requests, as well as removing illegal landfills and contributing to the cleanliness of streets, sidewalks and public spaces. Small interventions for the upgrading of public spaces and landscapes is also incentivized. 

The initiative aims at directly involving citizens in taking care of their neighbourhood, discouraging indiscriminate waste disposal and raising awareness of the adverse impacts of negative behaviour. 

For instance, those who are caught abandoning solid or liquid waste in public areas or illegal landfills not only get fined, but also cause the disqualification of the entire neighbourhood from the competition. Every six months, the winning district is awarded with a night lighting system, a drinkable water fountain, paving to a stretch of road and scholarships for children in need.

Communication & Messaging

Finally, another fundamental aspect of Freetown’s new city administration is communication and messaging.

This includes a shift from inaccessible or sadly obsolete institutional websites and semi-abandoned social pages to modern, engaging and, at times, aggressive communication.

Not a day goes by without updates on the goal achieved or on new objectives, and the #transformfreetown hashtag has gradually become omnipresent on social media.

This communication strategy is responsible for an increase in the engagement and spread of best practices among the city’s young population that is more and more connected on social media. 

Major Aki Sawyerr during cleaning or patroling activities

The picture of the mayor herself, often portrayed under the rain or with her feet in the mud coordinating emergency aid, represents a huge step forward compared to a vision of politics (and politicians) as distant from the daily issues or only present when the election deadline is approaching.

A politics of leading by example can certainly make a difference in involving citizens to do their part for the transformation of the city.

The Results

After an encouraging first year, when some coastal slums didn’t experience floods for the first time in the past few decades, the 2019 rainy season has dampened the excitement: two big floods in August hit the city, destroying dozens of houses and properties and resulting in ten victims.

The situations sadly looks unchanged, and as Umaru Fofanah, one of the most influential journalists in Sierra Leone, bitterly notes, while talking about the 2019 floods: “since 15 years, every rain season, I write exactly the same articles, to the point I could repeat the ones published the years before and no one would notice”.

Are the Flood Mitigation Activities Ineffective?

Absolutely not.

If on one hand it’s undeniable that the initiatives put in place are not sufficient to solve a problem caused by factors that stratified in decades of uncontrolled urban growth, on the other hand without these interventions the damage caused would have certainly been higher, not to mention the reduced morale of local residents. 

Apart from the poor results that can be quantified, the significant revolution that Transform Freetown represents for the city and its residents is undeniable.

From a diffused apathy towards problems perceived as too big to be tackled, they have moved to a concrete and pragmatic approach, that could positively affect many urban issues in the long term, if supported by participation.

In this way, the attention placed on the role of micro-communities in the urban structure, the active participation of the citizens in the improvement of their neighbourhood, the incentive for the diffusion of best practices through the competition among districts, the administrators leading by example or the race towards a common purpose are practical and creative solutions that can also inspire our cities, in a perspective of a more sustainable and participatory future. 



Federico Monica is an Architect, PhD, specializing in urban development and slum upgrading strategies in sub-Saharan Africa. He is a freelance consultant for NGOs and International Organizations, and is the founder of Taxibrousse Studio, an engineering and architecture consulting firm for international development projects.

Images: © Taxibrousse, 2020