Transportation and its relationship to disaster management in Sierra Leone – Part 1

Victor Megot

Sierra Leone Telegraph: 6 September 2017

The increasing urbanization of the Western Region in Sierra Leone has equally led to the demand for land to build affordable housing. Unplanned development and encroachment on forest land, water tributaries and catchment areas is rendering the Peninsular forest reserve a disaster-prone area.

What is the problem?

This area is part of the water table in the Freetown peninsular. Its exposure to the forces of the elements during the rainy season, increases the probability of floods and landslides every year.

In addition, there is the prevalence of illegal human economic activity in the mountain and hills, especially in the form of stone harvesting. This, together with the destruction of the land structure through stone blasting by contractors for house building, have created craters and loose rock/soil that are susceptible to adverse weather conditions.

The damage to the environment and other activities such as the cutting of trees for domestic energy consumption (charcoal) adds to the vulnerability of the ‘Protected Areas’ in the Western Region.

Heavy rainfall and increasing severity and frequency of floods during the rainy season are the key climate change factors, that make conditions more volatile in the Western Region during the months of August and September each year.

Water is the greatest enemy of transport infrastructure, and unfortunately climate change is leading to an increase in floods in parts of the western region and elsewhere in Sierra Leone.

It appears as if lessons have not been learnt from the 2015 flood in Freetown, which resulted in the death of seven people, leaving several thousands homeless. The floods affected the Wilberforce and Signal Hill area, raising alarming bells that no area is safe from the heavy rainfalls.

This is added to the fact that the drainage system in the capital is incapable of containing the volume of water from the rains.

Vulnerability of road infrastructure during emergencies

Underdeveloped infrastructure, particularly in the transport sector, is a key constraint to disaster risk mitigation and economic growth in Sierra Leone. The road network is particularly vulnerable due to the lack of routine maintenance and exposure to natural hazards (mostly flooding).

In the absence of alternative routes, any weather-related disaster and road closure can cut access and severely disrupt economic and social movement of the affected population. Ultimately, it is these scenarios and their potential outcomes that threaten the longevity and functionality of much of the existing transport infrastructure in the country.

The topography of the Western Region consists of a series of hills and mountains juxtaposed on a stretch of valley with a large coastline. When it rains, the water from the mountain and hills will naturally seek a path to the valleys and ultimately to the rivers leading to the Atlantic Ocean.

If the path way is blocked by illegal settlement, then the rain water will meander its way through the main city to gain access to the sea resulting in damages to property and the road infrastructure.

Bridges are critical links in the transport network. In their position across waterways, they are exposed to the full effects of flooding and landslides, and are often the first pieces of infrastructure to be damaged in the event of a disaster.

The recent floods in Freetown caused significant damage to main bridges and road infrastructure in the Dworzack and Gloucester village areas.

People in the affected areas were cut off from the main population. This made it difficult for them to be provided with emergency medical care, vital food supplies, and other relief efforts during the recent flood disaster.

A more serious problem is the construction of makeshift accommodation underneath some of the bridges in Freetown. Notable among which are the unplanned housing construction underneath the Peace Bridge (Congo Cross), Kingtom Bridge and several others across the capital. These structures have affected the movement of water during the heavy rains, thereby contributing to flooding and the destruction of lives and properties.

Transport for Emergencies

In Sierra Leone and indeed the Western Region, damages and losses related to transport are a significant proportion of the economic impact of disasters, often more than destruction to housing and livelihood in value terms.

Non-recurring events may range from traffic incidents, climate disasters and/or emergency transportation operations during epidemics (as in the case of the EBV in Sierra Leone) are always a challenge for effective disaster response management.

Efforts to improve transportation network efficiency and public/responder safety when a ‘non-recurring’ event either interrupts or overwhelms transportation operations, are critical in saving the lives of the affected population.

Lack of proper road access to these settlements, means that emergency response services are unable to reach vulnerable population during disasters.

Because transport is critical to our social and economic lives, it is extremely important to understand, anticipate, and minimize the different types of risks that may impact local transport systems.

Logistics preparedness is a key component of any disaster reduction effort. Planning is both necessary and practical, since it is generally possible to foresee the types of disasters that may affect a given location and the needs that such disasters will be likely to engender.

Logistics preparedness must be based on the vulnerability and resource assessment.

During the Ebola crisis, the lack of adequate transport for disease surveillance, movement of health personnel to high risk areas; ambulance service for the affected population and transporting the dead for burial, posed major challenge for the government and health partners.

A significant amount of state and donor resources was spent on the procurement of ambulances and utility vehicles for the Ministry of Health and Sanitation and other relief agencies. The UK Department for International Development (DFID) was one of the agencies that provided ambulances during the Ebola Crisis. In reviewing its contribution to the emergency response system, the DFID commissioned Transaid a UK-based International Non-Governmental Organisation to assess the requirement necessary to rapidly scale up fleet management infrastructure, systems and structures in order to respond to future emergency needs across Sierra Leone.

The Transaid’s technical team consulted stakeholders in the health sector and examined the present system for managing transport and logistics management resources at District level, with the aim of recommending an appropriate program to improve the level of response during emergencies.

Further support has been received from the World Bank to develop an Emergency Medical Services (EMS) system to provide appropriate and timely response during disasters. Both the World Bank and DFID initiatives are yet to be fully implemented due to bureaucratic barriers and the long-winded procurement process to identify experts with the right skills to support the program.

Disaster Mitigation

Mitigation is the effort to reduce loss of life and property by lessening the impact of disasters. In order for mitigation to be effective, the relevant authorities need to take action, based on previous experience and before the next disaster to reduce human and financial consequences.

This should be followed by some systems review, analysing risks of further occurrence and how this can be reduced in the future, while at the same time developing methods and systems for insuring against such risks, based on experience. It is important to know that disasters can happen at any time and at any place. And if agencies are not prepared to learn from previous occurrences –  the consequences can be fatal.

In Sierra Leone, the Office of National Security (ONS) is the responsible authority for disaster response and coordination. Critics have opined that they lack the systems and structure to undertake such a task because of the lack of experienced personnel and the absence of any national Disaster Mitigation/Emergency Plan.

Emergency planning should aim to prevent emergencies from occurring, and failing that, should develop a good action plan to mitigate the results and effects of any emergencies. In part 2 of this series, I will continue to discuss what needs to be done to avoid such disasters in Sierra Leone.

About the author

Victor Ako Mengot is an Urban Planning and Transport Consultant.

Editor’s Note

kindly donate to our Freetown Flood Disaster Emergency Appeal. We’re raising £50000 to help victims of the massive flooding in Freetown, Sierra Leone, which took the lives of over one thousand people, with thousands now homeless.

Please go to our JustGiving Crowdfunding Page and help make it happen:

https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/freetownflooddisasteremergencyappeal?utm_id=2&utm_term=RP2Xbe26B

2 Comments

  1. Thanks very much for your vivid explanation as a result of the heavy rainfall in the Western Area. The only thing I know is the government have never done anything to remove people from those affected areas. This had been the result of illegal buildings, so people can have shelter homes.

    The government must do more to avoid the tragedy that fell upon Freetown in the recent floodings. Somehow people tend to easily forget the past tragedies until it is too late to do anything. May God bless their souls.

    I am sure the country needs other politicians ready to take risks and drive them from the danger areas. The downtrodden people have no land on which to build, so they build wherever they can irrespective of the risks.
    Thanks again for your work to enable me understand the plight of Sierra Leoneans in their home country.

  2. Indeed, you are fully correct looking at all the points you have advanced with regard to the disasters which are taking place intermittently in the capital of Freetown.

    Please continue to do more research as we wish to know all the causes of these problems.

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