Oct 11, 2015
Suddenly Sierra Leone Government Faces a Vast, New Challenge

On Wednesday, September 16 this year, a heavy downpour flooded Freetown. An unknown (or unannounced) number of people lost their lives, some swept away by the rushing waters. Houses were engulfed, some carried away, leaving thousands homeless. The government asked those affected to register at the city's two stadiums, and some 10,000 reported themselves affected, many of them currently camped at the stadiums.

The government has announced plans to resettle the flood-affected, and has identified land on the outskirts of the Western Area for a new settlement.

The immediate problem is the feeding, clothing, shelter and eventual rehousing of those affected, but this is only the tip of the iceberg. Many tens of thousands more still live in vulnerable areas. This year's flooding has finally brought home the realisation that heavy rains in Freetown could bring widespread death and destruction.

In truth it is not a problem that has arisen overnight. Environmental experts and longtime Freetown residents have for years warned about the consequences of Campbell Street, Freetownmassive deforestation of Freetown's hills and uncontrolled growth and multiplication of slum communities in low-lying areas.
In recent years, various world disaster preparednes reports place Sierra Leone as one of the most vulnerable countries to natural disaster. Freetown, with the highest rainfall in West Africa, and with mountains rising steeply above it to 2000 ft has always had to cope with huge amounts of water in the rainy season. Kingharman Road, FreetownThe deluge was mitigated over the centuries by the thick vegetation of the coastal mountains. Over the last two or three decades this has steadily been eroded by new, often unplanned construction in the hills. Where once vegetation held the waters back and released it slowly, now brown muddy waters rush down in a torrent, sweeping all before them. Some of Freetown's major thoroughfares are quickly submerged during a downpour, making movement and even ground-floor occupation hazardous,

How much might the current disaster cost the Government of Sierra Leone? It has now assumed the responsibility of feeding and sheltering some 10,000 flood-affected. Assuming minimal costs of Le10,000 per day per head, the daily bill would be some Le100,000,000.00. The monthly bill would be some 3 billion leones, approximately 500,000 United States dollars. This is money the Sierra Leone government can ill afford to lose, and at some point it must  take steps to see the displaced rehoused and fending for themselves. Assuming it were to build 1000 low cost houses for them (say 8 or 10 per family),  at the very low cost of Le10,000,000.00 per unit, the total cost would be some 10 billion leones or 2 million dollars.

Kroo Bay, FreetownThese very conservative figures would impose a strain on the government budget, but somehow or other it would muddle through, as it has always done. As has now become almost normal, an emergency bank account has been opened for donations to the disaster-relief effort. However, this does not begin to address the problem. There are tens of thousands more, (no one really knows how many)  currently living in these vulnerable communities, with more moving in by the day. Meanwhile, up in the hills, construction continues apace. Unless strong action is taken immediately, the problem is certain to grow worse. Each fresh downpour brings with it a new apprehension. The midday rains of September 16, sustained but not exceptionally heavy, were a potent warning of what might come.

The problem is not simply an environmental or disaster-relief question. Decades of government inaction have led to the mushrooming of slum communities all along Freetown's coastline. These communities, filled with jobless youth, are potential breeding grounds of crime, disease and political violence. Many believe that the majority of the lower income groups that live in these communities are supporters of the APC, the self-styled party of the masses. The APC has

done little to discourage migration into Freetown and the expansion of these communities despite the protests of longtime residents. Freetown has more and more become the central battleground of national elections. Whichever party carries Freetown is likely to carry the nation. The suspicion has long been that in its desire to win Freetown, the APC has encouraged its supporters to move into Freetown, and to erect homes and set up stalls for trading more or less as they please.

The disaster points to an even more fundamental question, one that strikes at the very heart of Sierra Leone's problems, and one that the authorities would like to avoid at all cost. Why do Sierra Leoneans demonstrate such an overwhelming desire to move to the city, even into its dangerous, unhealthy slums? What is it that attracts them so? Conversely, what is it about their rural communities that they are fleeing? Why can they not carve out an independent, productive life within their original rural communities? Politicians in Sierra Leone have avoided answering these questions for decades. The raging waters from the Peninsula Mountains may finally force an answer.