Other lives do matter
WEEKS AFTER A SIERRA LEONE MUDSLIDE KILLED HUNDREDS, RECOVERY REMAINS SLOW
MUCH has been written in recent weeks about the disastrous damage wrought by Hurricanes Irma and Harvey and the vast sums of money that will be required to get Florida and Texas back on track.
Little mention though is made of the disaster of epic proportions that struck the African nation of Sierra Leone last month.
Five weeks have passed since torrential rains caused widespread flooding and a mountainside to collapse on the outskirts of its capital, Freetown, sending a deadly blanket of mud into several communities.
Life is gradually returning to normal, but it will be a long time before recovery in complete.
“We’re getting there, but the pace is still slow,” said Ramatu Jalloh, director of advocacy and communications for Save the Children in Sierra Leone.
About 500 people were killed, more than 600 are believed missing, and almost 2,000 homes were as a result of the August 14 mudslide, according to humanitarian aid workers. Almost 6,000 people were affected by the disaster, the International Organisation for Migration said.
The disaster was another grim chapter in the recent history of the poverty-stricken West African nation that has endured more than a decade of civil war and an Ebola crisis in which almost 4,000 people died.
Experts said poor infrastructure, deforestation and the construction of shoddy informal settlements on eroded hillsides contributed to the mudslide’s death toll.
“While flooding is a natural disaster, the scale of the human tragedy in Freetown is, sadly, very much manmade,” Makmid Kamara, Amnesty International’s deputy director of global issues, said in a recent statement. “The authorities should have learned lessons from previous similar incidents and put in place systems to prevent, or at least minimise, the consequences of these disasters.”
Destructive floods are common in Freetown, but “due to a lack of regulation and insufficient consideration for minimum standards and environmental laws, millions of Sierra Leoneans are living in dangerously vulnerable homes”, the Amnesty International official added.
The primary focus of the recovery effort is on the hardest hit areas, Jalloh said. But other communities that were less affected by the mudslide but were still inundated, such as the densely populated slum community of Kroo Bay, were still in dire need of help, she said.
Many roads in the mudslide zone remain impassable, getting food is difficult, and structures – many of them shanties that once provided shelter in the port city of about 1 million people – are now buried in muck.
The government had initially decided to house displaced residents with host families whose homes remained intact, but that proved to be impractical, said Zynab Kamara, emergency response manager in Sierra Leone for the international charity ActionAid.
“Most people are struggling with livelihoods right now ... so to put more people into a family that’s already crowded has its own dynamics and its implications,” the manager said.
Tent camps have since been erected to temporarily house the displaced, many of whom initially sought refuge in schools, mosques, churches, community centres, and with friends and family.
Lack of access to potable water is of great concern, aid workers said.
“The floods affected the water infrastructure and contaminated existing water sources,” said Phebeans Oriaro Weya, Oxfam’s acting country director for Sierra Leone.
The World Health Organisation warned that residents of affected areas were particularly vulnerable to outbreaks of infectious diseases, such as malaria, typhoid and cholera.
The last major cholera outbreak in Sierra Leone was in 2012, according to the WHO.
Weya said Oxfam was working with partners, including Save the Children, Concern Worldwide and Action Against Hunger, to provide drinking water to hundreds of those in need, including supplying bottled water and trucking water to communities.
People queue to register at the Saio Elementary Community School after the mudslides in Freetown, capital of Sierra Leone, on August 19.
People receive clothes at the school after the catastrophe.