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A preventable disaster: Landslides and flooding disaster in Freetown, Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone
World Bank
Publication date
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Evidence is clear that climate change is changing weather patterns, increasing the frequencies and intensities of extreme weather events. Unfortunately, those in the poorest communities are disproportionately affected.

On August 14, 2017 a devastating landslide and flooding disaster ripped through Sierra Leone’s capital city, Freetown. This caused millions of dollars of destruction and damage to buildings, infrastructure, and a reported loss of more than a thousand lives. In response, the government of Sierra Leone requested financial and disaster risk management support from the World Bank should such an event reoccur.

Prior to the landslide, Freetown experienced three successive days of intense and heavy rainfall which caused part of Sugar Loaf mountain – the highest peak in the North Western Area Peninsula – to collapse.

With bodies being washed up on the beaches, and bridges connecting communities and water distributions networks completely destroyed, response efforts spanning several sectors required millions of dollars to address the direct losses from the disaster. However, this still left the citizens of Freetown extremely exposed and vulnerable to future disasters.

A key consideration in post disaster planning is to ensure that build back better principles are well considered and integrated, so that nobody is left behind during the reconstruction efforts. And engineers, architects, designers, are fundamental in ensuring that appropriate design measures are fully integrated and calculated using accurate data sets.

After the landslide, the World Bank, Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR), and the European Union commissioned analytical studies of the landslide and geology of surrounding areas. While there was no single cause for the landslide, there were many contributing factors.

A common threat to Freetown is the rapid rate of urbanization, coupled with the increased rate of deforestation. In fact, the area where the landslide occurred was within a protected forestry reserve. However, over time, development of large houses had occurred some illegally (without permits) some with permits (legally). And because of these two factors - housing development and deforestation – soil integrity was weakened and the ability to absorb rain during high rainfall and increased the risk of disaster.

Presented with the analysis of the landslide disaster, the newly elected president of Sierra Leone declared that the landslide area is to be re-designated as a protected forest area – a memorial park to those that lost their lives during the disaster. The first locally sourced saplings were planted to mark World Environment Day with a total of 30,000 trees making up the memorial park in the hopes that this symbolic memorial park would deter settlements being built.