What we need to learn from Freetown’s landslide tragedy

To avoid another deadly landslide in a coastal town, Africa needs to take collective action against climate change.

Africa climate change Reuters
To avoid witnessing a repeat of last week's devastating disaster, and the demise of Africa's coastal cities, countries across the continent need to take urgent action, writes Munang [Reuters]

Last week, disaster hit Sierra Leone, one of the jewels of Africa. At least 500 people were killed after a mudslide tore through a suburb of the capital Freetown. Hundreds of people are still missing and thousands more are left homeless. This is a moment of pain that will forever be etched in our memories as Africans, but simply remembering this tragedy is not enough. We need to learn from it. 

Let’s put things in perspective. In Sierra Leone and across Africa, the science is unequivocal: Climate change, alongside other man-made elements like deforestation and encroachment, is a contributing factor in such disasters.

According to the US National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center, Sierra Leone has received three times the normal seasonal rainfall this year and such torrential rains are a direct consequence of climate change. This extreme rainfall, combined with the encroachment of creeks and wetlands that act as a natural drainage system for flood water and construction on flood-prone areas cumulatively precipitated this disaster. 

In early 2017, new data from the UK Met Office and the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) showed that earth’s temperature has increased to about 1.1 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels. This is dangerously close, just 0.4C away from, to the 1.5C threshold set by the Paris Climate Change Agreement to prevent worsening climate change effects.

Coastal vulnerability

In this trend, the vulnerability of Africa’s coastal cities, such as Freetown, is unprecedented. The sea-level-rise caused by climate change is projected to expose millions of Africans, who live in the continent’s coastal cities, to an increased risk of flooding.

By around 2050, five million people in coastal cities of Mozambique, two million in Tanzania, two million in Cameroon, one million in Egypt, and another million people in Senegal and Morocco are going to be exposed to the risk of flooding if the current climate trend continues.

Such flooding would significantly reverse economic and development gains in the region with the ensuing health impacts and damage to infrastructure. Also, several touristic sites would be lost and the food supply chain disrupted, exposing thousands of people to elevated food prices, loss of livelihoods and strife.

The science on climate change is clear. To avoid witnessing a repeat of last week’s devastating disaster, and the demise of Africa’s coastal cities, countries across the continent need to take urgent action.

Successful projects

The good news is that practical solutions have already been successfully applied across Africa. In Rwanda’s Geshwati area, a UN project that mapped and developed a comprehensive plan for land suitability is helping vulnerable communities to relocate from previously encroached high-risk natural environments to safer habitation areas. As agriculture is the main livelihood of these communities, this plan is also helping them learn about Ecosystems Based Adaptation (EBA) techniques, which allow them to safely work the land without degrading the area. Simultaneously, the plan is guiding the restoration of previously degraded catchment areas using EBA techniques such as agro-forestry. These efforts have already eradicated landslides that were a common phenomenon in the area.

OPINION: Africa and climate change – What’s at stake?

A similar two-pronged strategy has also been successfully applied to build resilience in Mozambique’s coastal communities. Here, coastal communities have long been encroaching on mangroves to harvest fish and vegetation. They were depending on fish activity for their survival and experiencing months of food shortage every year. These activities were also harming the mangroves  – a natural buffer against flooding – and putting the region at an elevated risk of coastal floods. To help save the mangroves and ensure food security, UNEP invested in a community-led fish-farming, crab-farming and mangrove reforestation project. The project proved to be highly successful in increasing local communities resilience to climate change.

Sierra Leone and other at-risk countries can benefit from similar strategies combining restoration of degraded ecosystems to buffer against the compounding climate change effects and allocation of sustainable alternative livelihood activities away from risk prone areas. Such projects will prevent possible future encroachment, thus prevent degradation of natural ecosystems that are our best bet against mounting climate change driven disasters.

But such projects alone will not be enough to provide a long-term solution to the climate change threat Africa is currently facing.

A collective undertaking

Africa has the fastest pace of urban population growth globally. This growth, however, does not reflect positively on economic growth, which is a key enabler to building climate resilience. For example, the World Bank notes that African cities are almost 30 percent more expensive than other countries at similar income levels. Housing is 55 percent more costly and food prices are 35 percent higher than in other low and middle-income countries. Unemployment is also high and, as a result, over 50 percent of urban dwellers are Africa is living in slums.

Sierra Leone is facing an urbanisation rate of 2.9 percent, and 75.6 percent of its urban population is currently living in informal settlements. These urban poor stand out as most vulnerable to climate change and this needs to be urgently addressed.

To address this, we need to diversify and decentralise socioeconomic growth opportunities and eradicate the allure of cities as the only areas where one can access income opportunities. It is vital to decongesting African cities and curtailing the growth of informal settlements that are vulnerability hot spots. 

By focusing on EBA-driven, agriculture-led industrialisation projects powered by clean energy we can create an opportunity to diversify income opportunities. Cumulatively, this amalgamation can create an agro-industrial sector worth up to $1 trillion by 2030 while ensuring ecosystems are taken care of. It is such diversification that will open up rural Africa  – where 70 percent of the continent’s agricultural activity takes place – to industrialisation and create economic opportunities that would relieve the pressure off of urban areas.

Actualisation of this paradigm is a collective undertaking. It will take the intervention of both state and non-state actors as called for in section five of the Paris Climate Agreement, forming mutual partnerships to bridge policy and operational gaps. 

Through an inclusive pan-African framework and platform, the Ecosystem-based adaptation for Food Security in Assembly (EBAFOSA), country stakeholders are already engaging to bridge critical gaps.

EBAFOSA is currently working towards policy harmonisation in agriculture, industrialisation, energy, roads and trade across the continent to ensure that all actors are contributing to the establishment of clean energy powered agro-industrial zones in rural Africa. EBAFOSA is also bridging financing gaps to spur entrepreneurship in these catalytic sectors in rural areas. 

“Traveling is learning”, says an African proverb. Sierra Leone and other at-risk countries stand a real chance of forestalling similar disasters by domesticating above solutions successfully applied by their counterparts across Africa. EBAFOSA through its modus operandi of Innovative Volunteerism offers an opportunity for country stakeholders to convene their respective capacities for mutual partnerships towards a common end. The solutions are known and we have the means to implement them. Let’s arise to act in the best interests of Africa’s present and future generations. 

Richard Munang is the United Nations Environment Africa Regional Climate Change programme coordinator. He is responsible for guiding the optimal actualisation of UN Environment’s climate resilient development objectives for Africa through coordinating implementation of diverse projects in adaptation and mitigation in key economic sectors especially agriculture, and energy as well as informing strategy and policy development from project lessons. Munang holds a PhD in Environmental Change & Policy from the University of Nottingham, United Kingdom. He has participated in a wide variety of research projects and has published over 300 articles in international peer-reviewed journals and magazines.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.