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A disaster that could have been avoided: Enhancing resilience with land and geospatial data

Alvaro Federico Barra's picture
Areas affected by the August 2017 mudslide in Freetown, Sierra Leone.
Areas affected by the August 2017 mudslide in Freetown, Sierra Leone.
(Photos: Robert Reid and Ivan Bruce / World Bank)

On August 14, 2017, after three days of intense rain, a massive side slope of the Sugar Loaf – the highest mountain in the north of Sierra Leone’s Western Area Peninsula – collapsed and slipped into the Babadorie River Valley.

The mudslide affected about 6,000 people. Up to 1,141 of them were declared dead or missing. The deadly disaster also caused major destruction of infrastructure near the capital city of Freetown.

What caused the slope to collapse? A complex set of factors, such as record-breaking rainfall and nature of the slope, may have contributed to the incident. However, many expert assessments suggest it was mainly "a man-made disaster" due to the rapid urbanization and expansion of Freetown – coupled with poor urban planning.

Like most West African cities, Freetown is plagued with unregulated building structures, residential housing in disaster-prone hilltop areas, and unplanned settlements that intensify deforestation and increase the risk of mudslides. To make things worse, many of the properties affected by the August 2017 mudslide were encroaching on the Western Area National Park, a forest reserve that still holds one of the last reserves of unspoiled forest in Sierra Leone.

A view of Freetown Sierra Leone on December 3, 2014
A view of Freetown Sierra Leone on December 3, 2014. Photo: Dominic Chavez/World Bank

Land administration also plays a big part here. Land rights in Freetown are often insecure and extremely difficult to transact, compared to elsewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa. The current process of land registration lacks efficiency and effectiveness, partially due to an inoperative land information system, incomplete and outdated cadastre, a lack of trained surveyors to conduct high-quality land surveying, and the absence of geospatial data sharing protocols.

This situation has not only contributed to difficulties in tax collection, distorted land markets, and poor urban planning, but also undermined the associated disaster risk management.
 
An assessment of over 100 houses during mudslides during rainy season
An assessment of more than 100 houses near the mudslide area revealed high risks of more mudslides and rock fall in the next rainy season. (Source: World Bank) 
Land holds the key to disaster resilience

Had Freetown been able to assess and map out disaster risks in these areas and use that location-based risk information for sustainable land-use planning, the city could have prevented many unnecessary losses of lives and properties. To get there, an essential first step is improving land administration and geospatial information systems.

There is wide recognition that national land administration systems and spatial data infrastructure are fundamental for disaster risk management, because:
  • They play a key role in facilitating pre- and post-disaster tenure, land use, land valuation, and zoning information on a unified geospatial platform for planning, monitoring, and implementing emergency responses;
  • The input of this information enhances the capabilities of cities and communities to build resilience and enables local governments, civil society organizations, and the private sector alike to carry out required mitigation and preparedness actions; and
  • Better access to information, along with more secure tenure, leads to better land use and management decisions to enhance resilience and reduce vulnerability.
In the case of Freetown, effective and coordinated services in three key areas – land administration, disaster risk management, and geospatial information production and sharing – may hold the key to helping the city prevent the next mudslide or any other disaster.

Mind the gap: Impact of land data on resilience
 
For Sierra Leone or any other country, national land and geospatial information can add important value to building disaster resilience. However, we need to better understand the role of such information at the local level, the responsibilities of the institutions that govern land data, and the impact of land and geospatial data on the overall resilience of society.
 
This leaves a critical knowledge gap in helping national and local governments, civil society, and the private sector significantly improve disaster resilience using existing information and resources, especially at the community level.

Moving forward

To fill this gap, the World Bank and the University of Melbourne are conducting a study to increase the recognition and understanding of national land and geospatial systems’ important role in resilience building. The study also aims to mobilize investments to increase the resilience, sustainability, and security of land administration and geospatial systems, as well as to improve the quality and accessibility of land and geospatial data services for resilience.

As part of this work, a symposium and forum will take place in Melbourne, Australia from September 24–27, 2018. The event will focus on developing resilience across all environments, melding the theme of “A Smart Sustainable Future for All” with the “Improving Resilience and Resilience Impact of National Land and Geospatial Systems” project. It will be an opportunity to explore the project in depth and generate input into key research outcomes, including a strategic vision and roadmap, individual country action plan templates, and the future direction of the project.

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