In September 2015, Freetown was struck by heavy floods, which killed at least seven people and made thousands homeless. Some of the hardest-hit communities were those in Freetown’s estimated 61 slums.
Saidu Turay, who has served as Chairman of Disaster Response Management for Kroo Bay slum for over ten years, said the floods last September were the worst he had ever seen.
The waters swept away houses, forcing thousands to temporarily relocate to the National Stadium. It destroyed property and livelihoods. As has become a regular occurrence in Kroo Bay, water contaminated with human waste spilled into people’s food and water supplies, and exposed people to skin diseases, rashes, diarrhea, malaria and colds.
Kroo Bay hasn’t yet seen severe flooding this season, but in many of the tin houses in the slum, doorways have been fortified to keep out the water.
According to a report from the Africa Research Institute on flooding in Freetown, Kroo Bay has experienced floods every year since 2008. The Chief of Kroo Bay declined an interview with Awoko, saying the slum dwellers had explained their problems with flooding to the media for years, and had yet to see any significant changes.
Destructive floods happen after heavy rain in the monsoon season. This year, meteorologists have predicted the rains will be heavier than usual, said James Kamara of the Sierra Leone Environmental Protection Agency. But just as much to blame are poor drainage systems and the rampant deforestation to build more houses that increasingly erodes the hills above Freetown.
Though the Ministry of Works, Housing and Infrastructure provides permits for building these houses. Kamara said they are usually issued without proper assessment of environmental impact.
And there’s not enough collaboration between this department and the EPA to make sure houses are constructed in a controlled manner.
“We’re dealing with this issue of indiscriminate construction of houses,” Kamara said. “In most cases we found out that these permits were issued without due diligence, without actually undertaking any kind of inspection as to the appropriateness of the project, as to where the construction is taking place.”
When houses are built in the path of rainwater, it’s inevitable that they will be flooded, he said.
“It’s simple physics. If you try to alter the natural pathway of water in terms of whenever it rains, then you are creating the circumstances for flooding to occur.”
Freetown also lacks good waste disposal, which clogs drainage systems with trash and prevents them from functioning. According to Turay, this is a major problem in Kroo Bay, which lies in the path of significant flooding, said Turay.
To prevent another disaster from happening, the slum’s disaster management committee has been educating people on the dangers of living in the slums during flood season.
“We tell them the dangers, the risks that they are faced with, so it’s for them to decide. But they always ask us, ‘Where do we go?’”
According to Turay, many Kroo Bay residents are migrants from upcountry, and some are reluctant or unwilling to return to where they came from.
The disaster management committee advises the slum dwellers to fortify their houses against flooding, if they can, and keep their valuables high up. But these are all temporary solutions, Turay said. Relocation to houses outfitted with the proper facilities, with good transportation and near school, is the permanent solution.
“Whatever the government is planning to do in terms of relocation is in people’s best interest,” he said. But, he added, “It cannot be done automatically….It will have to be in bits, in different stages.”
Meanwhile, the population of the slum is growing. When Turay arrived in Kroo Bay 20 years ago, he said the population was less than five thousand. Now he says it’s over ten thousand.
Kamara said the EPA is in favor of relocating people, but he acknowledged that it’s challenging. Many people relocated to the Six Mile community 20 km from Freetown last September did not benefit from being relocated.
“When we visit these communities, what we refer to as disaster-prone areas, what they tell us is that, ‘I have lived here all my life.’ Some will tell you ‘I was born here,’” Kamara said. “We have a very serious difficulty in that regard.”
Kamara noted a slogan that’s become popular with some slum dwellers: that the government should not try to remove the people from the slums, but instead remove the slums from the people.
“For us we take that as unwillingness on their part to relocate from these areas. But then again, it is not enough for you to just say, ‘Relocate to some other place.’ The question will be asked, ‘Relocate to where?’” Turay said the government should engage with the slum dwellers. Planning decisions should involve those who will be affected.
“I believe they should go to these communities, these slums, have discussions,” he said. “What are the reasons why people are always afraid to go or not willing to go?….There are fears in people’s minds that ‘If I go to Six Mile or wherever, I will be cut off….That’s what government and NGOs should do. Talk with people, allay their fears.”
By Chetanya Robinson