Sierra Leone: Waste management challenges

Zainab Tunkara Clarkson

The Sierra Leone Telegraph: 10 September 2013

Filthy freetown 2012As the urban population of Freetown grows to an estimated 1.2 million people, so too are the burden associated with waste management.

This is due to a combination of  factors, including, but not limited to the absence of a tough regulatory regime, inadequate budgetary allocation for urban sanitation, and where there are laws – the lack of enforcement.

The population of other urban centres, such as Makeni, Kenema, Kono and Bo for instance, have also grown immensely, warranting the need for an effective local waste management policy and appropriate implementation structures.

The need to promote public health has now become absolutely necessary.

This problem is also manifested in the lack of proper management of domestic and industrial waste, the absence of public toilets, and the growing menace of food and water packaging dumping.

Across Sierra Leone, no city has a municipal authority that caters for such waste management, as is the case in industrialised countries where local governments have legislative responsibility and the resources to discharge their duties .

In Europe for instance, local councils are responsible for emptying dustbins, maintaining landfill sites, disposal of recyclable material and the provision of public toilets.

According to the World Health Organisation, Sierra Leone needs to do a lot more to combat the spread of urban diseases, which can be attributed to inadequate waste management structures.

Cholera Outbreak Guinea 2012Last year, 12 of the 13 districts in Sierra Leone suffered the worst cholera outbreak in 15 years, reporting more than 19,000 cases and 274 deaths.

Freetown the capital city was the most affected, reporting more than 50% of total cases. In July 2012, President Ernest Koroma declared the cholera epidemic a humanitarian crisis, and a high level Presidential Cholera Task Force was established to oversee coordination, mobilization of resources and to guide the response.

This pandemic and the threat of more, has made it all the more urgent for health, sanitation and waste management policies to be prioritised in the country’s town and city planning.

The increasing urbanization and population density in Freetown and the other major cities has heightened the risk to public health, making these cities a hub for the transmission of cholera and other infectious diseases.

This is a major contributing factor to the rising mortality and morbidity across the country.

Our municipalities need to take these threats and the need for effective policy implementation very seriously, otherwise there may come a time when they may not be able to cope, given the rising urban population in the midst of limited resources.

The large rubbish dumps within residential areas in the capital Freetown, uncollected garbage, and the habit of depositing faeces in open places as well as the preponderance of pools of still water, have heightened the risk for the urban dwellers as well as those living in the slums.

cholera in Sierra LeoneTwo years ago, before the cholera outbreak, a Sierra Leonean independent policy think tank – Sierra Leone Policy Watch Inc. foresaw the problem and the threat it poses to the population.

They sent a set of recommendations to the government on how to avert the looming challenges of waste and sanitation.

Is it therefore reasonable to assume that, these recommendations if they were taken seriously could have prevented some of the loss of life?

Between 1990 and 2010, the population of Sierra Leone grew by 1.8m, while only 325,000 people had secured access to sanitation over the same period. In total, over 5.1m out of 5.8m people or 87% of the country’s population are without access to a safe toilet.

It is believed that 27% of the population use shared latrines, while 28% practice open defecation.

According to government estimates, average annual expenditure on water and sanitation almost doubled between 2008 and 2011, representing almost 1.3% of our gross domestic product (GDP).

One would reasonably assume that this increase in expenditure should help to address the problem at least by the same proportion. But this can only be achieved if the budgetary allocation is judiciously managed, otherwise the increase would mean nothing with regards to solving the problem.

Success also depends on the sense of urgency or importance the government attributes to the problem of health and sanitation.

Unfortunately, in the 2012/2013 government budget statement, the expenditure on sanitation was reduced to 0.01%, far short of the 0.5% that the government committed to spend on sanitation at the 2008 African Union declaration.

International charity – WaterAid, recently called on the government to not only honour this pledge, but to go further by aiming to spend at least 1% of GDP on sanitation and hygiene, in line with the recommendations of a 2011 World Bank report.

Recently, the United Nations Development Programme has estimated that developing countries could be losing as much as 5% of their GDP, due to the lack of access to sanitation and water.

In the case of Sierra Leone, this could translate to nearly 500 billion Leones ($114.28m) a year.

Apollos Nwafor, WaterAid’s Sierra Leonean team leader, said: “Sierra Leoneans waste 300 million hours every year looking for somewhere to go to the toilet. You can add to this the costs of illness and medical bills of those contracting diseases, due to the unhygienic conditions. This therefore means, the loss to Sierra Leone is likely to run into the hundreds of billions of Leones per year,”

Even if the government spends half of the above estimate to address the serious problem of sanitation, it should make economic sense in helping to limit the water poverty and its daily toll on human life, health and livelihoods.

cholera 1What makes the situation so pathetic is that it costs the government far less to provide appropriate sanitation and waste management facilities, than it does to combat epidemics when they break out.

Setting up a manageable waste management regime, implementing best practice with regard to refuse disposal, and providing public toilets are all relatively cheap compared with the cost of containing the outbreak of disease.

Until this is done, the millions of dollars spent annually on expensive drugs and health administration across Sierra Leone to combat childhood and maternal mortality will remain ineffective.

Hopefully, the government will realise this and honour its 2008 eThekwini commitments that obliges it to take the matter of public sanitation seriously, so as to prevent another cholera epidemic.

About the author:

Zainab is a Public Health Trainer and the CEO of Community Health Initiative Empowerment Foundation (CHIEF). She is also a Founding partner of VOSL. She has a BA degree in Business and Marketing and a postgraduate degree in International Development Management.

Zainab has worked extensively in private, public and voluntary sector areas across UK in Senior Management positions (non-profit sector). Zainab currently serves as a Chairlady and Trustee on the Board of the Greenwich Inclusion Project, as well as AFRUCA – Africans Unite against Child Abuse (UK).

She is also a Board Member of Teach For Sierra Leone and Greenwich Black and Minority Ethnic Forum. Furthermore Zainab is the Director of Marketing and Gender/ Children Editor for Voices from the Diaspora Radio Show.