Survivors of mudslide in Freetown still suffering four years on

As government focuses on Cop26, victims of climate-related tragedy call for shelter and jobs

As the Cop26 conference continues in Glasgow, thousands of kilometres away victims of a deadly climate-related disaster are still homeless and asking for help four years after it happened.

A huge mudslide on the morning of August 14th, 2017, in Freetown, Sierra Leone, killed at least 1,100 people and displaced thousands. The disaster happened following extremely heavy rains, which locals say have become more erratic in recent years. Many of the bodies of the dead were never recovered.

This West African country of roughly eight million people has one of the poorest populations on Earth.

Its president, Julius Maada Bio, and the mayor of Freetown, Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, travelled to Scotland to attend the climate conference this month.

“Climate change is a global crisis,” Aki-Sawyerr said on Facebook at the end of her trip. “We need to see high-emitting national governments take the necessary actions to urgently reduce greenhouse gases emissions by shifting away from fossil fuels. It is also necessary for low-emitting countries, like ours, to protect our environment, ecosystems and biodiversity.”

In particular, she noted, “timber logging must be limited”.

In a statement Bio said “Sierra Leone, like most developing countries, risks bearing the brunt of climate change effects” and that, due to “high debt servicing, Sierra Leone lacks the fiscal space to scale up investments in climate change actions”.

In the shadow of the mudslide, where the land remains empty except for a small memorial that marks out the area where hundreds of homes were buried, Chief Alimamy Bubu Conteh, the head of the local community, says survivors never received adequate government assistance.

“They’re suffering right now,” he says, adding that the government provided rent costs for one year for most survivors, but this was not enough for them to get back on their feet. Whereas before, many locals had small businesses, now most of them are living inside unfinished buildings and working odd jobs as labourers or cleaners. There were single parents left caring for children alone. Some orphans disappeared in the aftermath, and he doesn’t know who is caring for them now.

Directly after the tragedy, he says, it seemed there would be a lot of donations from other countries or from NGOs to take care of survivors, but things petered out. Victims have had all their savings, all their belongings and all their capital destroyed, so they are trying to start their lives again. “Shelter is the most important thing,” says Conteh.

Many children dropped out of school, he says, because of the associated costs, despite education being free. “Will you attend school without getting food in your stomach? Books, bags, school uniform, shoes?”

“What will stop the climate change? Let the Sierra Leone government think about their subjects in the country,” he adds. “Let them provide jobs for the youths, both male and female.”

As in many other developing countries, the effects of climate change are exacerbated by human responses to poverty, such as rapid deforestation around Freetown and rampant construction in unsafe locations without proper planning permission.

“Disaster is from God,” Conteh says, when asked if something like this could happen again. “This thing that’s happening here is from the almighty God, [it’s] whatever God has decided. No man can change it.”

Freetown – a city of roughly 1.2 million people – is making attempts to combat the climate crisis. In October,it appointed Africa's first "heat" officer", -a34-year-old calledEugenia Kargbo (34). Her role involves thinking of ways to cool the streets.

There is also a campaign, #FreetownTheTreetown, which has seen 300,000 trees planted so far out of a goal of one million by 2022. The thinking is that they could prevent landslides as well as lowering temperatures.

Freetown’s deadly mudslide was brought up a lot over the last week, after a fuel tanker explosion in the city’s east killed 131 people, with 63 injured still in hospital – 19 of them in critical condition. The unidentified bodies of people killed during Friday’s explosion were buried on the same site as those of the recovered mudslide victims.

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