A preventable disaster: Landslides and flooding disaster in Freetown, Sierra Leone

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(Directly below the landslide scar area, which is currently being replanted. Photo credit – Ivan Bruce)
(Directly below the landslide scar area, which is currently being replanted. Photo credit – Ivan Bruce)

Evidence is clear that climate change is changing weather patterns, increasing the frequencies and intensities of extreme weather events. Unfortunately, those in the poorest communities are disproportionately affected. 

On August 14, 2017 a devastating landslide and flooding disaster ripped through Sierra Leone’s capital city, Freetown.  This caused millions of dollars of destruction and damage to buildings, infrastructure, and a reported loss of more than a thousand lives. In response, the government of Sierra Leone requested financial and disaster risk management support from the World Bank should such an event reoccur.

Prior to the landslide, Freetown experienced three successive days of intense and heavy rainfall which caused part of Sugar Loaf mountain – the highest peak in the North Western Area Peninsula – to collapse.

With bodies being washed up on the beaches, and bridges connecting communities and water distributions networks completely destroyed, response efforts spanning several sectors required millions of dollars to address the direct losses from the disaster. However, this still left the citizens of Freetown extremely exposed and vulnerable to future disasters.
 

(Photo 1 – debris and clay washed into the sea,   Photo 2 – damaged housing close to the river bank. Photo credit – World Bank)
Photo 1 – debris and clay washed into the sea,   Photo 2 – damaged housing close to the river bank. Photo credit – World Bank

A key consideration in post disaster planning is to ensure that build back better principles are well considered and integrated, so that nobody is left behind during the reconstruction efforts. And engineers, architects, designers, are fundamental in ensuring that appropriate design measures are fully integrated and calculated using accurate data sets.

 


After the landslide, the World Bank, Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR), and the European Union commissioned analytical studies of the landslide and geology of surrounding areas. While there was no single cause for the landslide, there were many contributing factors.

A common threat to Freetown is the rapid rate of urbanization, coupled with the increased rate of deforestation. In fact, the area where the landslide occurred was within a protected forestry reserve. However, over time, development of large houses had occurred some illegally (without permits) some with permits (legally). And because of these two factors - housing development and deforestation  soil integrity was weakened and the ability to absorb rain during high rainfall and increased the risk of disaster.

Presented with the analysis of the landslide disaster, the newly elected president of Sierra Leone declared that the landslide area is to be re-designated as a protected forest area a memorial park to those that lost their lives during the disaster. The first locally sourced saplings were planted to mark World Environment Day with a total of 30,000 trees making up the memorial park in the hopes that this symbolic memorial park would deter settlements being built.
 

 

The Deputy Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Food Security planting a tree on behalf of President Julius Maada Bio. (Photo credit: Asad Naveed
The Deputy Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Food Security planting a tree on behalf of President Julius Maada Bio. (Photo credit: Asad Naveed

The inherent difficulty of responding to disasters caused by natural hazards is that there is no “silver bullet” solution.  However, trends are indicating that disasters and extreme weather events are becoming a frequent norm, that every $1 spent upfront on prevention strategies and disaster risk management will save the $3 required for rebuilding after an event. 

It is this need that architects, engineers, urban planners, decision makers, financiers, and citizens need to ensure that our cities are not only equipped to manage disasters, but that our infrastructure is resilient to withstand extreme weather events.

One such recent example was a recent “Resilient Homes Design Challenge,” which challenged teams of architects, designers, engineers and students to design disaster-resilient and sustainable homes that can be constructed for under $10,000 (7,885 GBP) for people living in areas affected by or vulnerable to natural disasters. The winners were recently announced and are due to be exhibited in the World Bank and at other related events. Whilst challenges such as this are excellent in raising awareness and generating innovative approaches to resilient housing, they must not be a one-off event, but rather the beginning of community of engaged designers, architects and homeowners.

To check out the winners more in detail, click here.

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Authors

Ivan Bruce

Urban resilience and disaster risk management consultant

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