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landslides

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.