SIERRA LEONE: Dwellers refuse to leave flood-prone slums

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

More than 10,000 slum dwellers have been affected by an 11 September storm that tore down dozens of makeshift homes in Kroo Bay, one of the city’s largest slums, according to a government evaluation completed on 15 September.

Saidu Alieu Turay, Chairman of the Kroo Bay health committee, said it was the worst flooding he had seen in the 20 years he has lived in the community. “Eighty percent of the community could not sleep in their homes that night.”

He called on the government to help them relocate.

Refusing to flee danger

The government’s national director of disaster management, Mary Mye-Kamara, told IRIN the government has tried to relocate residents from flood-prone slums in recent years, but they either refused or simply returned when water levels receded.

“They demand to move, but this is just lip service. ‘We can no longer live here’ they say, but guess who is back the next day? They blame flooding on people living at the top of the hill for dumping trash in the drainage, but that is not the problem. They simply live in dangerous flood-prone areas.”

Flooding occurs almost every year for people who live near sea level in hilly Freetown.

Sprawling communities filled with aluminium-sided hastily-constructed homes are clustered near the mouth of the Rokel river, which flows into the Atlantic Ocean.

Mye-Kamara says massive rural to urban migration in recent years, deforestation and poor drainage makes the city’s coastal communities the most vulnerable.

“Freetown used to have more trees, but people have cut them down for money. Trees no longer hold the soil in place, so everything washes downhill and clogs drains. A few years ago, the government offered to help move residents [in flood-prone zones] to areas further from the city centre, offering agricultural tools and seeds to support new livelihoods for them. They were not interested.”

She says her office can only coordinate assistance; it cannot force people to evacuate if there is no government law requiring people to leave areas that are potentially unsafe, or even deadly.

She says 2007 flooding in the slum area of Falcon Bridge led to at least one death when a resident was caught for hours under a boulder. “You would never imagine people lived in this slum. It was completely inaccessible. There were people living under a cliff. The constant rains had eroded the rocks, some of which finally tumbled onto their homes.”
She says the rescue took hours. “But if you were to go back today, I bet the number of people living there has doubled. People will not leave.”

Mye-Kamara says people tell her they do not have money to relocate, and do not know how they will make money outside the city centre.

Disaster policy in pipeline

The disaster management director told IRIN that her office has drafted a national disaster policy, completed near the time of presidential elections in September 2007. She explained the presidential elections set back discussions until now. “The government was not focused on disaster at the time, so the draft was placed aside for reconsideration.” said Mye-Kamara.

“We expect the new government [of President Ernest Bai Koroma] to review it soon. It is in the pipeline to be endorsed.”

When asked how government endorsement will help prevent future flood crises, Mye-Kamara responded, “This forces the government to deal with flooding. All we [Office of Disaster Management] can do is raise awareness, and coordinate donor assistance and response. We have no power to carry out forced evacuations. But if we have the blessing of the government, we can move people.”

Mye-Kamara says flood prevention will cost less than flood response. “Coming out of a civil war [1991-2002], the government has limited resources. It has so many competing concerns and it cannot afford to keep helping people rebuild their homes.”

She added the Office of National Security has convened a meeting for international and local partners working in disaster relief, which is scheduled to take place on 18 September, to discuss solutions to the perennial problem of flooding.

Weak early warning system

One element of the national disaster policy draft is the creation of an early warning system.

Currently, the National Meteorological Department is responsible for national weather monitoring, but its director, Sombi Lansana, said his department is overstretched and focused on aviation weather forecasting.

“We have only two forecasters and both of them are at the Freetown International Airport at Lungi. Aviation weather forecast is round the clock; even when we are not expecting flights we need to have one forecaster on site who will be communicating with the control tower in case there is a need to divert flights here if a neighbouring country is experiencing bad weather,” he explained to IRIN.

Lansana said the weather department’s rain gauge is not working, so he could not give measurements for rainfall on 11 September, other than to say, “It was the heaviest daily rainfall we’ve experienced this year.”