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Sierra Leone’s recurrent floods and mudslides

14 August 2019 at 00:30 | 1191 views

Commentary

Sierra Leone’s Recurrent Floods and Mudslides: Any Lessons Learned From The August 14, 2017 Mudslides & Floods Disaster?

By Kortor Kamara, USA

The Norte Dame Global Adaption Index in 2017 ranked Sierra Leone 158 out of 182 countries for vulnerability to climate change. It is estimated that 35 percent of our population is at risk with a mortality risk exposure from multiple hazards including floods and mudslides.

Sierra Leone has for decades been designated as a natural disaster prone country, especially for floods and mudslides, which are deemed likely not only from the effects of climate change but more so from the massive deforestation of virgin forests around the Freetown peninsula.

However, the absence of basic meteorological stations to prepare the population about impending storms remain challenges. At the time of the 2017 mudslides and floods, there were only two operational meteorological stations at Lungi airport and at Wilberforce covering the entire country.

In the last 15 years, Sierra Leone has experienced 5 major floods, including the recent August 2019 floods, with casualties and severe economic damages, affecting over 500,000 people.

Today, as Sierra Leoneans remember the catastrophic mudslides and flood disaster victims, the nation is again experiencing ongoing floods and a mudslide reminiscent of that August 14, 2017 catastrophe at the same Sugar Loaf mountain, bay slums, valleys and waterway flood epicenters around the peninsula.

According to a World Bank/UN damage and loss assessment report on the August 14, 2017 mudslides and floods in the western area, a total of 6000 people were affected; 1141 persons dead or missing and 3000 people lost homes.

According to an August 8, 2019 Awoko Newspaper report regarding damage caused by the August 2, 2019 floods, “Disaster Officials disclosed August 2nd rains completely destroyed 441 homes with 4,364 partially damaged while 3,521 displaced are in govt. buildings, 489 in Churches and Mosques and 2,288 with host families”.

Natural disasters such as floods and mudslides are generally categorized as acts of God.

However, experience should now have taught us that our repeated failures in addressing or mitigating the consequences of these natural disasters and catastrophes - largely due to the failure, negligence or inertia of our policy makers and to a greater extent ourselves in protecting our environment and fragile ecosystems - will only exacerbate the frequency and severity of these floods and mudslides.

With the increasing frequency of natural disasters, catastrophe accidents and Sierra Leone’s vulnerability to their escalating human and financial losses, it is no longer acceptable for platitudes and mere lip service by policymakers and institutions that acts of God are inevitable.

Therefore, the mere reactions of shock and empathy by politicians and policymakers, without embarking on identifying and analyzing the causes of these mudslides and flood disasters and implementing mitigation policies that will, if not totally prevent, but certainly minimize such, should no longer be acceptable. It is critical that as we embark on recovery and reconstruction, following these ongoing floods, our policy makers and disaster response management professionals must prevent actions that end up creating further disaster risks by ensuring hazard assessments and public sensitization.

As noted in the World Bank assessment report, followed the 2017 mudslides, disaster risk management has not been fully implemented and integrated into our nation’s development plans. There remains an absence of a coordinated legal framework for mainstreaming disaster risk reduction into the nation’s development plans and strategies.

There is an abundance of disaster risk data showing areas of vulnerability. Instead of simply reinventing the tool with additional data analytics, and awaiting the inevitable, we need to use that data to drive effective mitigation strategies.

The creation in 2004 of a disaster management department, within the Office of National Security (ONS) is inadequate and despite having both a national disaster management policy and a national disaster preparedness and response plan on paper, both of which were deemed not fully operational, according to the World Bank “Sierra Leone: Rapid Damage and Loss Assessment of August 14, 2017 Landslides and Floods in the Western Area” report.

The establishment of a separate disaster risk management agency, decoupled from the ONS must be seriously considered by government. As currently constituted, the ONS budget for disaster risk management is paltry with capacity and number of personnel deemed inadequate for the tasks countrywide.

In the aftermath of the 2017 mudslide and floods disaster, the 2009 boat disaster and several other catastrophe losses before, including the current 2019 floods, the risk management professional in me often posses such mundane questions as, who pays the death benefits, survivor benefits of the deceased, permanent disability benefits; wages or income loss compensation to the victims, medical expenses of the injured, property damages and replacement of vehicles? What is the adequacy threshold? What is the duty of care and who assumes financial liability for such disasters, and in the case of the several preventable motor vehicle accidents, the assumption of general liability of the owners and operators towards passengers and crew, still remains to be not only adequately addressed but codified by our society.

In most developed societies, systems and structures involving the management of accidents, disasters and catastrophe risks include a combination of commercial liability insurance, risk management techniques and loss control measures, all of which aggregate to minimize the frequency and severity of natural disasters and catastrophe risks.

In Sierra Leone and most developing countries however, pre and post-disaster management and reconstruction are largely relegated to government and donor largesse and ad hoc emergency response - which mostly is inefficient and lacking in resources.

A regulatory and legal framework embracing a risk-based approach, were the pooling and scaling up of disaster risks enables the many to share the costs of the financial misfortunes of the few - a bedrock principle of insurance - represents the most efficient model for Sierra Leone to provide protection to her people, businesses and institutions, against the adverse financial effects of floods and property losses.

The role of risk mitigation to reduce the suffering of victims, economic losses and financial pressures following such disasters will also forestall the diversion of limited and scarce resources from sustainable developmental programs in the country.

Aside from the Freetown City Council which currently is embarking on a flood mitigation program, funded largely by the World Bank, local government councils lack legal responsibility and budget allocation for disaster risk reduction programs.

It is hoped that the Freetown City Council and Mayor’s flood mitigation program, will incorporate and embark upon relocation of all dwellers and temporary constructions in the river mouths and drainage channels, which mostly cause rain waters to back up, resulting in localized flooding in flood prone zone areas of the municipality.

The severity and frequency of flooding in these low shanty towns and flood channels, exacerbated by slum dwelling and ‘pan bodies’, is projected to continue into the foreseeable future, if aggressive measures at relocation are not immediately embarked upon by the city council and government.

Sympathy and empathy are quite frankly not what is required for these foreseeable man made or induced disasters or catastrophes nor will prayers bring about any changes. Rather, a well planned risk management disaster plan, including if possible forced removals of illegal structures in flood prone areas, is what is required.

What is so impractical with enforcement of basic building codes and removal of pan bodies and slums in flood channels? If the municipality and central government cannot embark on such, then am afraid the cycle of flooding and attendant property damage and casualties will forever remain our story and divine intervention our our only hope.

While reactions from prior and current governmental officials and policymakers have primarily focused on violations of rules, the intransigence of the victims and people in not adhering to policies against building in dangerous disaster prone areas, overcrowding of boats and lack of life jackets - all foreseeable - our politicians and policymakers, especially the Parliament, risk squandering the opportunity for radical reforms in the nation’s disaster risk management, commercial and personal liability laws this tragedy affords our country.

As an advocate of the principle of a holistic disaster risk management as a disaster risk reduction strategy, it is unfathomable and unconscionable that the forests and ecosystems around the peninsula have not been adequately protected from loggers, land grabbers and other eco bandits.

Homeowners, businesses and non-profit organizations and institutions should be made to obtain flood protection and adequate flood insurance against the adverse financial effects of disasters and floods especially when the public is involved.

The economic impacts of the recent mudslide disaster, and recurring annual floods in Freetown, can be mitigated if the disaster risk management capacity and knowledge base is significantly strengthened.

It is my desired hope that as we mark the second anniversary of the mudslides and floods of 2017, our nation’s collective shock to this disaster, as eloquently expressed by president Maada Bio at the first anniversary commemoration, must serve as a catalyst for reforms to our nation’s largely non-existent and non-enforceable national disaster management policy and the national disaster preparedness and response plan and liability laws.

Major natural disasters and accidents have severe negative socio- economic ramifications on societies. However, in developed societies systems and programs involving severity loss minimization of natural catastrophe disaster risks abound. It is thus hoped that as a first step a structural strategy framework designed to identify the nation’s disaster vulnerabilities and catastrophe loss potentials, with adequate financing mechanisms through risk management and insurance is commissioned to address the adverse financial effects within the larger society.

With the increasing frequency of natural disasters, catastrophe accidents and Sierra Leone’s vulnerability to their escalating human and financial losses, it is no longer acceptable for platitudes and mere lip service by policymakers and institutions that acts of God are inevitable.

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