Sierra Leone: Water Crisis threatens survival in Freetown

3 June 2009 at 05:32 | 1350 views

By Roland Bankole Marke, USA.

Water is a necessary resource for the survival of living organism, especially
humankind. In most of Africa, mainly in Sierra Leone today, water is perennially
scarce. Its insatiable demand has outstripped a stagnated or disrupted supply.

In a dusty and thirsty capital city Freetown, with scourging heat and
temperatures reaching the extremes, this could trigger dehydration and other
health challenges. However, exposure to moderate sunshine is a source of vitamin
D: It lowers cholesterol, lowers blood pressure, regulates the immune system and
stimulates the production of insulin.

I discern solace knowing that this tiny
nation of 6 million people about the size of Maine does not belong to a drought
stricken perimeter. Instability, precipitated by this recovering nation’s decade
long civil war, compounded with related economic setbacks had motivate the
exodus of folk in search of a better life. Cultural milieu as psyche attracted
migration to Freetown, where rural nomadic dwellers anticipate embracing their
quintessential dream life.

Reality unlike fallacy would render folk homeless, starving, and despondent, in
a city, where cut-throat competition, resilience to survive, and dynamics of a
ruthless capitalism system prevail. In a functional democracy government has no
mandate to impede free movement of citizens from one region of the country to

People are attracted to live where the most favorable conditions of
living most likely exist. The ripple effects would implode on the scarce
resources the migrants naturally consume, including water, food, housing, and
job opportunities. Invariably the status quo is ill equipped to handle this
monumental upsurge in demand for goods and services, especially clean and safe
drinking water.

A city that was initially projected to serve about 300,000 -
500,000 residents, bears the Herculean burden of catering for about 1.2 million
people, according to 1994 estimates. The rapid explosion is the tidal hurricane
that government and local communities would have to wrestle with.

The nation’s infrastructure has become obsolete, worn out, if not nearing
breaking point. Government still crawls to measure up with technology operating
at fiber optic pace in a modern economy. The necessity for capital investment is
as paramount as it is desperate and urgent.

A complete overhaul of the nation’s
structural water supply system needs top priority. Once electricity is
stabilized, water pumps could be installed in vulnerable locations, for
pressurized water to reach consumers living at high gradient or mountainous
regions. Living in New York that is famous for high rising apartments and
skyscrapers, residents there seldom experience water shortage or taps drying up
in the tall buildings: Only for routine maintenance, prior to issuing notice to
consumers of a disruption in service. Back home, the service providers seemingly
are apathetic to the needs of the consumers, lacking the will and ability to
maintain infrastructure, until the service finally breaks down.

Essential service hubs as Connaught Hospital, Princess Christian Hospital and
local food markets in the heart of Freetown, often experience acute water
shortage. The taps dry up: glaring fact that the nation’s water crisis has
reached a dangerous threshold. Outbreak of communicable diseases including
cholera, swine flu or epidemic could spell nightmarish catastrophe. Germs, virus
or bacteria flourish in an environment where they could adapt and thrive.
Frequent washing of hands hinders pathogens responsible for infectious diseases
from multiplying. Unavailability of water renders the scenario precarious and
untenable. For most part of the year, Freetown residents face serious water

Folk roam around with large plastic containers searching for water while in a
marooned Island. Those employed go to work with containers trying to fetch
water. People who can afford it have installed water tanks, and for a bargain
they could get regular water supply from fire trucks operated by employees of
the nation’s Fire Force Brigade. It is not uncommon for duels between employees
of Guma Water Company and Fire Force Brigade to spark up fracas or infrequent
death may result. But who gives authority to the employees to unlatch fire
hydrants, tapping the scarce water supply: possibly to sell to the highest
bidder, illegally? Who is looking out for the poor folk, including the most
vulnerable population: women and children who could least afford to pay the
asking price?

To help ease the burden on the suffering masses, digging water wells are taking
place in various communities around the country with support from some elected
leaders. From Wilberforce on the west, to Kissy Road in the east, wells are
popping up all around Freetown, mostly in densely populated areas. About 400
meters from the town of Grafton is a water plant factory - Grafton Spring Water
that sells the finest and most refreshing bottled water in the nation. There is
very little drinking water for the local community having no access to the
spring water. Their wells have broken or dried up. Children have become sick,
while government has decided capping off the number of wells in the poor
community that could otherwise be utilized.

A unique and telling case study is ‘Mojabi Cave Well’ at New England Ville built
about 50 years ago, that now services some 6000 people. This community had water
crisis long before I lived there in the 80s, but the authorities have eternally
been looking on the other side. Youths in this area have mobilized themselves
forming the ‘Water of Life’ organization exploring to find urgent solutions to
the people’s needs. They collect donations from residents and well wishers to
fund the refurbishing of the well that had become a death trap: while mapping
out lasting solutions to the ageless water problem.

April 18, 2009, 17 year-old Aminata Kamara(photo), a student of Wallace Johnson
Memorial School went to the only well in the area to fetch water for domestic
use. She was thirsty for water as she was for education, as she prepares to take
her examination the same day. While she was collecting water, a huge boulder
rolled down and crushed her, killing her. Two other students were also injured,
but were rescued from the gruesome accident. On the hilltop trees were being cut
down to erect new buildings or for use as fire wood. Soil erosion or landslide
could have caused the stone to fall down after heavy rain storm. The victims who
were rushed to the hospital survived. The tragedy precipitated a convulsion of
grief in the community. Folk wept bitterly, blaming the elected leaders for not
being sensitive to their pressing needs.

Amid the emotional upheaval the Member
of Parliament for West 2 Julius Cuffie appeared at the scene to express
condolences to the families affected. “Cuffie, go away, go away” the people
yelled at him. Cuffie did not take it too well. He got furious for being
disrespected in public. Hopefully, this tragedy would be an opportunity to erect
a safe well at New England Ville: probably pioneer a tree planting campaign in
memory of Aminata Kamara, as a fitting memorial for her legacy.

Amid the heartache and growing challenges there is a glimmer of optimism. Water
experts have advised that the Orogu River at Hastings Village is the answer to
the water supply crisis in Freetown. Atkins consulting firm of UK, assisted by
other local partners including Oxfam and a local engineering firm 3BMD examined
the water and sanitation problems in Freetown in order to craft a long term
solution. A leading consultant of Atkins, Richard Shepard, stressed that with
the population explosion prevalent in the city, compounded with the stride for
development, the Orugu Dam is the only lasting solution to the water crisis in
the city. And that the current Guma supply to the city was 83 million liters a
day, equivalent to 16 million gallons a day.

The Orugu project in its first stage would provide the city with 75 million
liters per day equivalent to an additional 12 million gallons a day. The studies
said that the Orugu scheme was in three stages as the first phase could provide
the city with at least 28 million gallons per day and the second and third
stages tripling that number. Douglas Hunt, another Atkins consultant, appealed
to the government to halt all developmental activities within the catchments
perimeter. On the sanitation problem, Jonathan Parkinson and others asked
government to reintroduce rigid legislation on health and sanitation. An
official of Guma, pinpointed that the current Guma facility could no longer cope
with the alarming population explosion in Freetown.

The minister of Lands, Country Planning and the Environment, Dr. Dennis Sandy,
while addressing a session of Parliament recently said, “I’m willing and ready
to expose with evidence to substantiate my point that some Parliamentarians in
the Western Area are indeed involved in illegal land transactions.” While a
foreign critic said that corruption is not a native of any land: it finds easier
homes in some.

Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and first African woman to win the prestigious
accolade - Kenyan born Wangai Maathai in a fierce and urgent speech in London
recently said there is a change taking place. We can hardly keep up with the
requests [for help]. The tree is just a symbol for what happens to the
environment. The act of planting one is a symbol of revitalizing the community.
Tree planting is only the entry point into the wider debate about the
environment. Everyone should plant a tree, she says. "Nature is still being
taken for granted. Yet when it is destroyed, life itself goes. Politicians
[everywhere] are putting immediate needs ahead of the long term. We must
challenge the decision makers. We must appeal not just to their heads, but to
their hearts. I can only see things getting worse if we do nothing she

Sierra Leone and the rest of the world need to heed Maathai’s passionate appeal.

Roland Bankole Marke is the author of Teardrops Keep Falling, Silver Rain and
Blizzard, and Harvest of Hate (Fuel for the Soul). His website is
phone; 904-645-5738