Sierra Leone marks one year since devastating mudslide

Regent, Sierra Leone – A deafening sound from outside made Kalilu Daboh, an imam on the outskirts of Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown, rush out of the mosque.

As soon as he was out, he saw the hill in front of him collapsing. He instantly turned his head towards the direction of his house.

It had disappeared.

“I was told everyone had been buried by the mud. Four of my children died, together with my wife,” says Daboh.

“It was the first time I experienced this kind of disaster.”

Exactly one year ago, an estimated 1,000 people were killed and 6,000 others affected in a mudslide and flood disaster that devastated Regent, a mountain town located just outside Freetown.

For the next three months, Kalilu Daboh, who has lived in Motorbeh in Regent for 11 years, and his three remaining children found shelter in a camp hosting affected members of the hillside community.

He received food and rent assistance from the United Nations and The National Commission for Social Action, and was able to get out of harm’s way.

“When I received my package, I relocated in the same vicinity but to a safer place,” says Daboh.

“I have now moved away from the disaster site. Even if that kind of thing happens again, I will not be affected.”

Last year’s mudslide occurred in Regent, a mountain town located outside Freetown  [Lilah Gaafar/Al Jazeera] 

Sierra Leone hosts an annual rainfall of 3,600 millimetres and ranks in the top 15 most vulnerable countries to disaster risk worldwide.

Freetown, where the ocean meets the mountains, is particularly defenceless.

Originally thought to be the result of heavy rain brought on by climate change, this was not solely a natural disaster, but one of environmental degradation and poor planning, according to experts.

“The interference of human beings in nature was clearly visible in the affected areas, as well as the high-risk areas around the diaster zone,” says Muhibuddin Usamah, the United Nations Development Programme disaster management specialist who was deployed to Sierra Leone after last year’s flash floods and mudslide.

“In the last four decades, there has been a loss of 60 percent of forest in western Freetown. Unfortunately, the trend is increasing and without perception of risk, floods, landslides, and other hydro-meteorological disasters are on the rise,” he adds.

“The ease of being close to the city centre is a factor that means local populations settle in areas that are not supposed to be habitable. The unplanned housing development has caused the forest boundary to be pushed 5km.”

Future risk

Kalilu Daboh, another member of the community, used to go to Freetown to sell gari, cassava and charcoal. But since the disaster, he says he has not been able to continue his business.

“Now I volunteer and teach Arabic at the Islamic school. I receive stipends,” he says, adding that if he has the opportunity he would like to relocate to a different area.

Unlike Daboh, not everyone affected are as mindful of future risk.

Seventy-five percent of affected community members still reside in the same disaster-prone areas, considering it unlikely that they would be affected by a landslide or flooding in the future.

The Recovery Needs Assessment Report conducted by the World Food Program in July 2018 concluded that low-income households were the majority of those affected, and they remain highly vulnerable to seasonal flooding and a vicious cycle of asset loss.

Sierra Leone mudslide survivors still living without homes

Even though the threat of future floods and mudslides is real, last year’s disaster was nonetheless a catalyst for change.

Sunil Saigal, the UN’s resident coordinator in Sierra Leone, commended the then-national security coordinator and the Office of National Security (ONS) for leading the mobilisation of a massive response from the early hours of August 14, 2017.

“There is a need to invest in disaster prevention and long-term environmental management, and the UN has continued to work with ONS and other institutions on these issues,” says Saigal.

Looking forward, John Vandy Rogers, the director of disaster risk management for ONS who led response and recovery efforts on behalf of the government, said that there are lessons to be learned one year later.

“Community engagement is key, early warning is paramount, mitigation is critical, and the ONS has a central role in terms of human and environmental security.”

Looking over the landslip, Daboh cannot believe a year has passed.

Where his house once was now lays sapling trees. The UN and the World Bank support the government in reforesting this area.

“This is very good. The trees will keep the soil in place and prevent future disasters,” says Daboh.

He considers disaster-risk preparedness as the new normal.

“People are more aware of environmental dangers now, of building under the hill and living by the river banks,” he says.

“When it rains, everyone anticipates that something worse can happen.

“Every day, I am thinking about my family and the children I lost.”

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