Mudslides wreak fatal havoc in Sierra Leone

Power of nature: A hillside in the town of Regent collapsed after heavy rain. © Getty

Almost 400 people have been killed after deadly mudslides wreaked havoc near the capital of Sierra Leone. Some are now blaming the government, but was this all inevitable?

Fatmata Sesay lives in Juba, a hilltop settlement in Sierra Leone. At 4:30am on Monday morning she, her husband and their three children were awoken by rain beating down on their mud house, which was already submerged in water. They managed to escape by climbing onto the roof.

“We have lost everything and we do not have a place to sleep,” she says.

But some were even more unlucky. Close to 400 people have been confirmed dead in devastating mudslides in the West African country, with the death toll expected to rise significantly. Over 2,000 people have lost their homes. “It is likely that hundreds are lying dead underneath the rubble,” said Victor Foh, the country’s vice-president.

Downpours on the hills resulted in “a domino effect for a distance of about two miles. The mud came down burying people alive, bringing down houses, bringing down big buildings,” said a local.

Summer is the rainy season in West Africa. Freetown receives an average of 31 inches of rain during the month (by way of contrast, New York receives 4.44 inches). In similar circumstances in 2015, floods caused by the rains killed ten people.

Freetown is dotted with scores of shanty towns, many of which are situated at vulnerable locations, perched on top of hills or close to the sea. These settlements are unplanned and informal, and are rarely subject to any kind of planning permission or building regulations. They are often populated by recent migrants from the countryside.

In June a spokesman for the country’s president warned that such homes posed a risk to residents and the environment. He said that people were building recklessly and cutting down trees that would otherwise help protect the land. However, many in Sierra Leone blame poor drainage in the country for the disaster.

In 2016 the IMF ranked Sierra Leone as one of the world’s 20 poorest countries. It is still recovering from decades of civil war, while in 2015 it had to deal with the Ebola crisis.

Given these trying circumstances, can anyone really be blamed for these lost lives?

Muddying the waters

“This is a tragedy, but of course it is no one’s fault,” say some. Unplanned, potentially dangerous settlements are just a fact of life in developing countries, where thousands will do anything to live within touching distance of a big city. This is a struggling, benighted country. The government can only do so much.

Others respond that it would not have taken very much money to guard against such a disaster. You need to do two things: implement strong legislation on how and where people can build houses, and educate people about the dangers of cutting down trees to build their homes. This disaster could have been prevented.

You Decide

  1. Should anyone be blamed for the Sierra Leone mudslides?
  2. Why do natural disasters in poor countries get so much less coverage than those in rich countries?

Activities

  1. Design a poster encouraging people to donate money to victims of the Sierra Leone mudslides.
  2. Imagine that you are the president of Sierra Leone. List five things you plan to do in the next year to prevent a repeat of this disaster.

Some People Say...

“There’s no such thing as an entirely natural disaster.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Sierra Leone needs “urgent support” after hundreds were killed and thousands displaced by mudslides and floods caused by heavy monsoon rains near the country’s capital, Freetown. We know that the flood was made more likely by people cutting down trees in order to build makeshift houses, and that the country’s infrastructure is struggling to deal with the effects of this disaster.
What do we not know?
To what extent the death toll will rise, or how long it will be until we know how many were killed. A worker for the charity Street Child said: “Construction companies have brought in their power tillers to help dig up bodies. There’s no equipment. This is unprecedented and Sierra Leone was ill-prepared for such a catastrophe.” We also not know if it could have been prevented.

Word Watch

Rainy season
Countries near the equator do not have significant temperature changes throughout the year, but they often have monsoon seasons. These occur because of seasonal changes in the direction of the strongest winds in a region.
IMF
International Monetary Fund.
World’s 20 poorest countries
By GDP per head of population. The list ranked South Sudan as the poorest country in the world, with Luxembourg, Switzerland and Norway filling the top three spots.
Civil war
Lasting from 1991 until 2002, the war began when the Revolutionary United Front, with support from the government of neighbouring Liberia, intervened in Sierra Leone in an attempt to overthrow the government of Joseph Momoh. The war formed the backdrop for the 2006 film Blood Diamond.
Ebola
The epidemic lasted from 2013 until 2016. Nearly 4,000 people were killed by the virus in Sierra Leone, with many others killed in neighbouring Guinea and Liberia.

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