Mudslide rings alarm bells

2017-08-20 06:02
Officials wait beside graves dug for hundreds of mudslide victims at the Waterloo cemetery near Freetown, Sierra Leone, on Thursday. Picture: Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

Officials wait beside graves dug for hundreds of mudslide victims at the Waterloo cemetery near Freetown, Sierra Leone, on Thursday. Picture: Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

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A mudslide that devastated Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown this week, so far killing 461 people and leaving more than 3 000 homeless, has raised questions about deforestation, urban planning and disaster preparedness by that country’s government.

On August 14, a mudslide killed hundreds on the outskirts of Freetown, sweeping away homes and leaving residents desperate for news of missing family members.

Aid agencies have warned that there was a risk of waterborne diseases such as cholera and typhoid spreading as more flooding was expected.

A local state of emergency has been declared. Satellite images show extensive damage, with hundreds of buildings destroyed.

Meanwhile, the Red Cross claimed it was struggling to excavate families buried deep in the mud that engulfed their homes.

Large-scale burials began yesterday as an estimated 600 people remain missing.

People continued to search through tons of mud and debris amid the remains of mangled buildings.

Rescue officials in Sierra Leone warned that the chances of finding survivors in the debris of this week’s mudslides were “getting smaller every day”, as bereaved and homeless survivors faced the magnitude of all they have lost.

The government also warned residents to evacuate an area near a mountainside where a large crack had opened.

Rainfall remains in the forecast for the coming days, slowing recovery efforts and bringing the threat of further mudslides.

Zuliatu Cooper, the deputy minister of health and sanitation of Sierra Leone, told AP that the government’s main focus was getting people away from areas still under threat.

“The rains are still pending and there is a possibility that we will have another incident,” he said, adding that some parts of the capital were without clean drinking water because of damage to pipelines.

Malaria was also a concern, as many of the estimated 3 000 homeless people were sleeping without mosquito nets.

"An annual occurrence"

Joseph Macarthy, co-director of the Sierra Leone Urban Research Centre, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that the major cause of mudslides and flooding was the “chaotic development” caused by the rapid urbanisation of Freetown.

“Deforestation has become at the order of the day with people grabbing any available land for housing, since land is limited and hard to access, especially for the poor and middle-income groups,” he said, adding that town planning was almost nonexistent in the city, with housing development taking place without recourse to planning.

Briama Koroma, also co-director of the Sierra Leone Urban Research Centre, said the tragedy could have been avoided if the government had listened to campaigners.

Civil society groups have repeatedly warned that houses are being built illegally in areas that contribute to the risk of flooding.

Makmid Kamara, Amnesty International’s deputy director of global issues, said while flooding was a natural disaster, the scale of the human tragedy in Freetown was, sadly, very much man-made.

“Devastating floods are now an annual occurrence in Freetown.

"The authorities should have learnt lessons from previous incidents and put in place systems to prevent, or at least minimise, the consequences of these disasters,” he said.

Kamara said millions of Sierra Leoneans are living in dangerously vulnerable homes owing to a lack of regulation and insufficient consideration for minimum standards and environmental laws.

“The right to adequate housing under international law requires that every home be ‘habitable’, which includes providing protections against disasters such as this,” he said.

Jamie Hitcher, policy researcher at the Africa Research Institute, said the devastation could be greatly reduced if the government were to show commitment “financially and politically” to addressing well-documented underlying urban management issues such as waste management, deforestation, the provision of housing and spatial planning.

“For too long, decisions regarding the management of the city have been driven by political calculations, to the detriment of most residents.

"Solving urban challenges is less about identifying what they are, but mobilising the political will to act,” he said.

At least 122 of the victims are children, and a similar number have been orphaned by the disaster, the aid group Save the Children said.

Sayo Jalloh, who lost a son, a brother and 15 other family members, has been too numb to mourn.

At a camp for those made homeless in the hard-hit Regent neighbourhood, she has been having trouble sleeping and pleads with her traumatised daughter to eat.

“I just keep wondering why I don’t see them or even dream about them,” she said of her lost relatives.

“It just seems like when someone has travelled. I can’t even locate the house where I used to live, other than to just point at the area.”

Staff reporter, Reuters, AFP

Read more on:    sierra leone

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