From the Editor’s Keyboard

Focus on the Environment

2 September 2014 at 07:53 | 1177 views

By Mariama Kandeh, Guest Writer, London, UK.

I was on holiday in Freetown last August when the King Jimmy Bridge collapsed. A few days before that unfortunate accident, I was travelling along Hill Cot Road and was shown another wreckage of a building that had collapsed in Tengbeh town. At the start of the rainy season this year as well another house collapsed at Grey Bush. This is no news, the only news that comes from these accidents is the increasing number of deaths.

Accidents like these have been reported since colonial days. Poor housing and poor environmental planning are the major causes for these accidents. While some will argue that some residents in houses located in dangerous zones have been reluctant to heed advice to relocate to more suitable sites, it is the negligence of the authorities to put adequate mechanisms in place to prevent people from building houses in these dangerous zones that should carry the most blame. This has been the case with relocating the Kroobay community that suffers severe flooding every rainy season; same for other slum areas in both the east and west of the city.

In the midst of the horrible Ebola crisis that has hit Sierra Leone and her neighbours, seaweeds have covered one of the country’s most beautiful beaches, the Lumley beach (see photo). Although seaweeds are said to have some health and medicinal benefits, some types can be very toxic for human consumption. Besides, the presence of seaweeds makes the beach very unsightly for visitors and will surely send people away once our country’s health situation is restored to normal. While the focus at the moment is ending the haemorrhagic Ebola fever, our environmental experts should be asking the following questions: What is causing these seaweeds to take over our beach? How do we get rid of them? How do we prevent them in the future? The authorities should work with the Tourist Board and tourism ministry as well as business owners around our beaches to ensure a lasting solution is found.

Freetown is no longer the green city that I grew up in. The green hills are being covered with houses without any plan for adequate refuse collection, toilet facilities and water supply facilities. No wonder the constant struggle for water supply in the city.

Visiting the peninsula area, I realized the damage caused in the centre of Freetown is being moved to the peninsula area where the search for wood and charcoal for cooking is destroying the Freetown peninsula forests. The housing boom taking place in that part of the western area is also causing more harm than good to our environment.

Sometimes these issues force me to wonder whether we have a Housing and Environment Ministry in Sierra Leone. If we do what is the role of this ministry and why is it so difficult to manage the Western area where we have the capital and which should be an attraction to foreigners? Despite efforts by the government to modernize Freetown, one still cannot compare it to other West African cities in the sub-region.

I spoke to a caretaker of the so-called peninsula protected forest and he said most of the houses that are being built haphazardly at wrong points causing environmental problems are owned by Sierra Leoneans in the diaspora. While I will not dispute his claims I know these Sierra Leonean diasporans will not do or will not be allowed to do the same in their host countries. This takes me back to the Sierra Leone authorities.

At Tokeh, I was shown an uninhabited house which I was told was meant for the Forest guard who is meant to monitor illegal activities in and around the Freetown Peninsula. I also observed that people have been going deep into the forest illegally burning wood for charcoal while there were reports that the police and environmental officers are being bribed to allow the depletion of the forest areas. Why are we so mean to ourselves?

Albeit the signing of agreements like the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, Flora and Fauna, the rampant hunting of animals endangered or not, is still a major problem in Sierra Leone. And the most serious of all is the loss of bird biodiversity because human activities are destroying their habitats. However, there is need to protect the country’s biodiversity from extinction because of its immense economic benefits which are threatened at the moment, considering that many Sierra Leoneans are poor and depend on it for their livelihoods.

The increased heat in the city is also environmentally related and people in urban areas are most likely to be affected severely. Almost a hundred percent of the population in the country uses charcoal or wood for cooking and other related activities and this has severely increased the amount of carbon dioxide produced. The people that live in Freetown are exposed to indoor and outdoor air pollution that can cause many different health problems. Furthermore, Freetown, like most other cities in Africa is full of old and outdated vehicles that have been condemned in developed countries. These vehicles contribute immensely to carbon dioxide emission, further endangering the lives of Sierra Leoneans and foreigners alike.

Early this year I learnt that a Lebanese business man has built a house at Tokeh beach causing locals to raise concern that they have lost tourists who used to go to the beach as a result of the construction of the dwelling house at the beach. While may want our house built by the seaside we must also not be selfish enough to ignore the communal and national benefits of maintaining tourism.

Indeed the country is suffering from a number of environmental issues including sand mining, deforestation especially the art of using wood for charcoal making these communities prone to natural disasters. Already the country, like most others in the world, is experiencing global warming and a change in its climate. There have been reports of heat waves, thunder storms, altered rainfall patterns, flooding, drought, landslides and so on with a debilitating impact on the socio-economic fabric of the country.

Most residents in Sierra Leone lack access to clean water. The Guma Valley water dam at Mile 13 was developed to cater for a population roughly above 900,000. Today that number has multiplied and has resulted to widespread water shortage for people especially among the hill-side communities of Freetown. Lack of access to clean water affect rural communities the most, who have to travel on foot miles and miles away to the nearest stream whose water usually lacks the necessary purification for consumption. Such water is polluted mostly by human waste. Diseases like typhoid, cholera, diarrhoea come from contaminated water.

Sierra Leone has been hit by the deadly Ebola virus and according to the former head of the Ebola unit in Eastern Sierra Leone, the late Dr Humarr Khan the rainy season could be a vehicle for further spread. Water pollution is also the cause for many infant deaths and other health problems of people of all ages.

I remember in my primary school days in Freetown, we were taught about the essence of wild life conservation and environmental protection. As school children, we were always involved in tree planting activities in order to protect our wild life and environment. What has happened to such beneficial initiatives? Climate change is real and Sierra Leoneans must be adequately sensitized and educated about environmental protection before it’s too late.