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A Country at Risk: A Clarion Call for Climate Change Solutions and Holistic Housing Policy

A Country at Risk: A Clarion Call for Climate Change Solutions and Holistic Housing Policy

The recent dreadful mudslides of August 8th and 18th 2010 that claimed so many lives and destroyed properties in Freetown is enough evidence that the environment is in a terrible mess. The government is now expected to act in a proactive manner, but can it contend with the real, looming threat of environmental catastrophe? How can we expect people to behave differently?

I feel obliged to express deepest sympathy to those who lost their loved ones in these tragedies. It is equally tragic that Sierra Leone has repeatedly suffered from environmental disasters where we have and already lost many lives.

As I scanned through report and newspaper publications, I noticed that there was no substantive information or research of the causes and impacts of the mudslides.  But what bothers me most, is that there does not seem to be a single environmental scientist or government official to properly address the issue and provide a direction for policy and action oriented interventions. Alas, it seems like people are quick to ignore or totally forget about these tragic incidents.

The absolute heart of what it means to care about the solution is to care about the problem – that our opinions are based not on what we would like to be true but on what is found by research to be true. It is difficult to figure out exactly how much of what we know about climate change is scientific facts or public opinions, mostly because little research has been done to figure out how Sierra Leone has been be affected by environmental disasters.

While I have not done a scientific study on the issue, but before the dust settles, I wish to express my own opinion, based on experience while using existing information and the reality on the ground to make a clarion call for action. In this article, I contend that, in terms of helping us understand the current and future implications of climate change and poor housing structure – particularly on small disadvantaged homes in the mountain districts across the country and slums settlements along the costal areas where poor and marginalised communities are located the existing government’s housing policies and climate change interventions, if any are not ‘fit for purpose’.

My current thinking is guided by the following observations:

(a) the big picture implications of climate change;

(b) Sierra Leone’s commitment to the Copenhagen Accord as a member of United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC),

(c) neglect of the poor and disadvantaged linked with bad practices of  the land tenure system ‘grabbing’ and unfair sale could lead to  danger and  destruction of our  environment for present and future generations;

(d) the need  to review existing housing policies under the premise of a conducive environment and;

(e)  recommendations for a step change in how housing  policies connects with climate modelling.

My goal is not to disregard the contribution made by authors of work in this field or existing government interventions, but to highlight the potential implications and misunderstandings that can arise if urgent and appropriate actions are not taken and applied simplistically and uncritically to the emerging crises of climate change. I seek not only to challenge conventional wisdom but to highlight priorities and offer guidance for the ‘government’ going forward.

The big picture

Climate refers to the average weather experienced over a long period, typically 30 years. The Earth’s climate has changed many times in response to natural causes. Today the term climate change usually refers to changes that have occurred since the early 1900s. Floods, mudslides, droughts, heat waves or storms are often the main causes of destruction and human suffering tied to climate change.

However, when the ensuing climate system (the totality of the atmosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere and geosphere and their interactions) processes are factored in, causing significant adverse effects in the lives of people, plants, animals or any living thing, for that matter, then climate change becomes a very complicated issue. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) defines climate change as, ‘a change of climate which is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and which is in addition to natural climate variability observed over comparable time periods’.

A comprehensive assessment by the world’s most authoritative body on climate change, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggests that human activities are contributing to climate change, and that there has been a discernible human influence on global climate. Climate changes caused by human activities, most importantly the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas) and deforestation, are superimposed on, and to some extent masked by, natural climate fluctuations. Natural changes in climate result from interactions such as those between the atmosphere and ocean, referred to as internal factors, and from external causes, such as variations in the sun’s energy output and in the amount of material injected into the upper atmosphere by explosive volcanic eruptions.

The problem is that human activity is making the earth blanket “thicker”. For example, when we burn coal, oil, and natural gas we spew huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the air. When we destroy forests the carbon stored in the trees escapes to the atmosphere. Other basic activities, such as raising cattle and planting rice, emit methane, nitrous oxide, and other greenhouse gases. If emissions continue to grow at current rates, it is almost certain that atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide will double from pre-industrial levels during the 21st century. If no steps are taken to slow greenhouse gas emissions, it is quite possible that levels will triple by the year 2100 (UNFCCC).

Changes as small as a 2°C global temperature rise will have serious impacts: rising sea levels, extreme events like droughts and heavy rainfall, leading to disruption to natural and man-made habitats. That’s why so much effort is being made to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to stop the most damaging climate change, known as mitigating climate change.

There had been warnings that the combined threats of climate change and an increase in extreme weather patterns caused by human activities would intensify the impacts of disasters.  Several extreme weather and climate events are occurring worldwide.  We were all astounded by Hurricane Katrina in the USA; the massive flooding in India and Pakistan; the extensive mudslides in China and the Philippines, the severe drought in Thailand, the dreadful earthquakes in Iran and Haiti, and the heat waves in Europe, etc,. The flood, drought, forest fire, severe storm and heavy precipitations causing landslides, earthquakes and flash floods, have become more frequent and severe, killing millions and destroying properties. More intense precipitation events due to increased southwest monsoon activities and severe storm occurrences around the world have been taking place in recent years, causing massive landslides and flash floods.

Implications for Sierra Leone, with the recent mudslides

Environmental disasters in other parts of the world and the recent mudslides in Sierra Leone have shown the impacts of climate change and, as a result, have raised environmental concerns. The issue of environmental disasters should be taken seriously by the Sierra Leone Government. The scale and frequency of environmental tragedies in the past should have, long before, provoked the government into action to address the problems of landslides and mudslides at the source.

This is an opportunity for the issue of environmental risk and climate change to move up the political and scientific agendas, while acknowledging the frequency and severity in environmental incidents and the increased likelihood that this trend will continue as a consequence of climate change.  What is the ‘Sierra Leone Environmental Protection Agency’ (a statutorily designated as the focal point on all environmental matters) doing?

Weather can change very rapidly from day to day and from year to year, even with an unchanging climate. Climate is the long-term average of such weather conditions. With climate change, such changes in the weather can go from one extreme to another. Sierra Leone runs the risk of being affected by more frequent and severe environmental disasters resulting in floods, rainfalls, mudslides, forest fires, deforestation, and poor land usage. The resulting casualties and damage to property exacerbate the misery and predicament of an already overburdened populace and poverty stricken nation.

Torrents of mud and boulders flattened the country’s landscape, and result in deaths and homelessness. From all indications, climate change will be most acutely felt in an escalating frequency and ferocity of floods and severe mudslides. It’s chilling to think that we ought to expect much more of this kind of devastation in the coming years.  Mudslides are aggravated by the inability of the soil to absorb water all along the watershed. Never has it been clearer how interconnected we are upstream and down.  El Salvador’s 262 municipalities share dozens of watersheds including some with Guatemala and Honduras. A comprehensive management plan that brings together often squabbling government ministries and municipalities won’t be easy to forge and implement. But it is essential.

The drainage system in Sierra Leone needs urgent review and improvement. It is important to manage water as a common means giving consideration to all the plants and animals that live from the water supply. This isn’t a matter of generosity of spirit, but pragmatic ecology. If the slope is managed to retain its vegetative cover and keep its soil intact, there will be less mud. It may sound obvious but is not frequently practiced: Water agencies must work side by side with environmental agencies which must work together with local governments towards environmental improvements.

Sierra Leone and the UNFCCC

Governments around the world have signed up to a number of agreements to combat climate change. Under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, countries agreed to take action and reduce emissions. The ‘Kyoto Protocol’ set laws requiring countries to lower emissions. A United Nations (UN) conference in Copenhagen in December 2009 aimed to decide what the global targets and action will be after 2012 (when the Kyoto targets expire). The Copenhagen conference resulted in the Copenhagen Accord, signed by the majority of countries. The accord includes: international backing for an overall limit of 2 degrees Celsius on global warming, agreement that all countries need to take action on climate change and, financial help for the countries most at risk from climate change.

Sierra Leone being a member of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), it has pledged to upholding, fostering and promoting a collaborative platform in order to achieve sustainable development and a socially equitable future for the people of Sierra Leone. Sierra Leone recognises the Accord and therefore has expressed firm commitment to associate with and support the Copenhagen Accord.  In a bid to significantly contribute towards the reduction of the sources and potential sources of Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions or enhancing carbon sinks, the Sierra Leone Government pledged to undertake a number of appropriate mitigation actions.  So far, the government’s response to the Copenhagen Accord has been slow and lackluster. Sierra Leoneans, particularly the youth, women, children and civil society are expected to follow up on these actions and pursue the Government for implementation. See Sierra Leone’s commitment in the link here: http://unfccc.int/files/meetings/application/pdf/sierraleonecphaccord_app2.pdf.

Housing system and the environmental risk

Does the housing system have a role to play in the debate over climate change? I have argued fervently in this article that gross degradation of the environment can arise if existing housing systems are not treated with great care.  Do we have anything to offer beyond descriptive analysis of unfolding impacts? Mindful of the impact of poor housing systems, I strongly believe that there are useful tasks that housing experts can commit themselves to that have the potential to make an important contribution. In particular, robust, well constructed houses carefully interpreted and thoughtfully connected to anticipate climate scenarios can be of genuine utility. Housing experts have an important role to play here since many of the environmental threats are linked to the housing structures. Carefully analysis of anticipated hikes in flood and mudslide risks can help provide much more tangible and local images of what the effects will be for a particular household’s neighbourhood.

Illegal constructions may have played a role in the mudslides and it is increasingly evident that human neglect and illegal activity played a role in these tragedies. The government should also acknowledge that deforestation, unregulated housing and poor drainage systems have weakened the soil and contributed to the mudslides. This disaster should serve as a springboard for environmentalists to step up their campaign against illegal construction, which is rampant throughout Sierra Leone.  Regulations often are not enforced.  Illegal construction is one of the biggest problems affecting Sierra Leone’s geology.  Determining the exact number of illegal structures in the country is impossible, and it’s worth noting that illegal construction is being carried out even in areas of geological high risk, like Kroobay/coastal surrounding and the Peninsular Mountains of Freetown. How disheartening is it for one selfish person to be in possession of many plots of land, while the poor are left with nothing, but to scramble in environmentally risky areas in search of shelter.

Here is a very real need to help households and institutions visualise risks at the local level if we are to encourage changes to behaviour that will preserve environment and increase local efforts to combat climate change. What are the implications of climate change for you and your neighbourhood? How will it affect the chances of you losing your job or going bankrupt? What will be the impact on the value of your home or of the community in your area? These are the questions of likely interest to those whose actions will shape the future of our climate. How to allocate limited public funds among increasingly competing wants will be an unwelcome challenge for policy makers, complicated considerably by the asymmetric responses of different areas. The socio-economic impacts of extreme weather events will depend on social cohesion, and the economic robustness and dynamism of an area. The same weather event could devastate one area, but be only a temporary blip for another, so the Government must be on it toes and on the look out from all vantage points in the country.

Attitudes, neglect of the poor, land ‘grabbing’ and unfair sale

While the mudslides disaster might have come as a shock for some, it was not a big surprise for those who are paying attention. Our country is so fragile and so densely populated that no part of it can be considered completely safe at the moment. The extreme risk situations are in the tens of thousands, not to mention areas of high, medium and low risk, which number hundreds of thousands. While some ‘doubting Thomas’s’ say that mudslides are largely natural phenomena, human actions contribute to the problem. Cutting down trees, not maintaining water courses properly, fires and of course illegal, excessive or bad construction all contribute to devastating mudslides. Houses are built on high hills tops, and people wanted to cover them completely, so now above these torrents of water there are streets and boulevards. Take a look at places like New England, Dwarzark, Wilberforce, Tengbeh town, Sorie town, and the eastern parts…the list is endless.   Freetown has little space for expansion, so people always tried to build behind their own homes. But they didn’t take the sandy soil or ground structure into consideration, and often built on them in an incorrect way.

The Government’s intervention to review the structures in these high risk areas will give us some breathing space for building a conducive environmental consensus about how we improve on our housing system and deal with environmental disasters in the country in the longer term. I remain convinced that demonstrating our ability to control and manage the environment in our own interests will be an important part of any new government policy. I’m quite tough about that.  And I want to subscribe to one of the criticisms of my friend, JS Suma on SaloneDiscussionForum.  As he  commented: ‘’…lives wasted on account of the Government’s failure to address the dangers associated with the construction of homes on the hillsides around the city without proper planning, destroying the vegetation that holds the soil together resulting to such sad consequences. It is easy to blame the poor family that choose upon themselves to build their homes along the side of the hills, but isn’t that what we have a Government for, that reviews and regulate such individual decisions for public interest? I would blame this squarely on the Government particularly the Ministry of Lands for the failure to provide alternative for those families and/or regulate the building process around the city…’’

Indeed the government must combine both adaptive strategies such as disaster preparedness programs and, continuous vulnerability assessments to cope with these threats. With climate change will come water shortages and decreases in agricultural productivity and food security.  Our health will be threatened by heat stress and increased chances of exposure to infectious diseases.  Those living in low lying coastal areas (Kroobay and the likes) may become climate refugees as their homes are destroyed.  And tourism, an important source of income for many, will decline. Climate change will also bring more extreme weather, from floods to droughts, forest fires to tropical cyclones.  As extreme climate events increase in strength and frequency, more and more people will risk losing their homes and lives.

The Paradox of the premise of a conducive environment

I would like to think that there exists a major gap in the research and policy understanding of the intersection of environmental and housing structure in Sierra Leone. This has led to confusion and misunderstandings with regard to the interpretation of observed environmental disaster outcomes.  Housing policy has not, as yet, fully appreciated the potential magnitude of the impact, which is potentially considerable due to extreme weather and climate change, and none of which have been considered in any depth in the housing and country planning or incorporated into the agenda of future housing demand, supply, affordability or housing wealth inequality.

The problem does not stem from a lack of legislation alone, but each time land is zoned or applications for building are made, geological tests should be carried out. However, the rules often go unenforced or are incorrectly applied.  The failure to exercise responsible leadership in a time of national crisis has been described by critics as both disappointing and insensitive. Analysts say that people in Sierra Leone have lost confidence in the government’s environmental interventions, and that the bitterness simmering among those affected by housing system stems from a broad failure that is reflected in corrupt practices from a selfish interest to personal enrichment, that has provided fertile ground for these environmental disasters.  Unfortunately, even in places where there have been the most tragedies or the most violent incidents, nothing has changed regarding the model of development, and the government nonchalant attitude is a cause for concern.

For example, if we think of the latest disaster, where in September 2009 there were more than 150 people drowning in the ‘Shenge’ Boat accident, being one of the biggest environmental tragedies. Illegal practices still continue in those places and there isn’t a real project to enforce laws to stop the practices.  In the aftermath of that disaster, President Koroma stated: “We cannot leave the lives of our compatriots in reckless hands…We should ensure that the lives of Sierra Leoneans are not wasted in this manner any more… And now we should resolve not to allow it to happen again. And for this not to happen again, we must take hard decisions; we should comply with the laws passed; for it not to happen again…’  But, unfortunately, President Koroma’s statement has turned out to mean the opposite.  The mudslides are another clear example of the waste of lives of our compatriots.  It’s is not about the statements and good speeches we make when events happen. The most important thing to do is to create checks and balances in all other facets of society to prevent these tragedies from happening again.  The President should know that there is no compliance of the law, without enforcement.

In a recent unannounced visit to Freetown, I saw with my own eyes the manner in which peoples’ lives have been staked by these so-called boatmen. I, myself, when I missed the Ferry, I was nearly tempted to subscribe to one of these boats…what an error! So what is the government still doing, any plans to ban these boats and improve better means of sea travel? There is always a tendency for people to risk their lives or breach the law, more so when they are caught in desperate situations in the midst of abject poverty. So business as usual gives way to corruption, so-called ‘shake hand’ and selfishness, at the expense of our peoples’ lives and country’s prosperity.  My good friend Amadu Massaly put it like this: ‘’In Sierra Leone, the leaders in government are deified.  And it is that sycophancy from the average Sierra Leonean that goes into our leaders’ heads that gives them courage to act with arrogance while almost believing they are no longer human beings (many of them). But the people of Sierra Leone are so poor they have no choice it seems, but to treat the master as a higher being, which creates or nurtures a vicious cultural cycle of  impunity, unaccountability, nothingness, abuse, thievery, etc…’’ This is a well made point – and I accept that we do need many more voices talking about holding government accountable in positive terms. Government is something not just to hold power, but to deliver. But it is true too that we’ve had plenty to commend the government progress in recent years.  Now, we would like to see a robust environmental agenda for change, while at the same time arguing that mere ‘sugar-coated talks’ in the interest of political point scoring is not a sensible way to achieve that outcome.

Conclusions and Recommendations:

In 2007, President Koroma—took office. Expectations are high that he will correct years of policies of plunder that have impoverished Sierra Leone’s disadvantaged communities and the country’s poor. But, that’s not a job one can do alone.  Everyone in Sierra Leone should play a part; inspire the government to mull policies to manage the environment—ensuring that future generations (humans, plants, and animals) will receive their fair share of our natural resources through sensible, sustainable management.

The capacity of Sierra Leone to adapt and mitigate can be more effective and enhanced when climate change policies are integrated with national development policies including economic, social, and other environmental dimensions. Such portfolio of policy instruments may include energy mix requirements, land use policies, emissions/carbon/energy taxes, provision and/or removal of subsidies, technology or performance standards, product bans, voluntary and private sector involvement, government spending and investment, and support for research and development.

The government should seek the cheapest solution first—civic participation. When it comes to financing environmental projects, policymakers get nervous about the numbers. It’s certainly true that this work can be very expensive.  But, by inviting citizen stewardship of a public resource, the government has the chance to show communities that they have real say-so about how to manage their natural resources. The massive environmental disasters on the pipeline, fanned by climate change, demand a collective action from all levels. There is an urgent need for effective and sustained program to enhance the level of climate change awareness among policy/decision makers, the various stakeholders, the media, students, and the academia, and the general public to seek their own empowerment. There is no more urgent time than now to encourage the effective participation of people from all works of life, children, youth, women, faith groups at home and in the Diaspora in this fight to combat climate change.

A community based vulnerability assessments on sea level rise, agriculture, water resources, health and coastal and marine resources should be conducted nationwide following closely the Common Methodology of the IPCC. From here, more focused and realistic adaptation measures can be formulated.  Improve further the accuracy and effectiveness of climate change monitoring systems and enhance further the preparedness, prevention and mitigation aspects of disaster management.  Adaptation has the potential to reduce adverse effects of climate change and can often produce immediate ancillary benefits, but will not prevent all damages.  It may be able to complement mitigation in a cost effective strategy to reduce climate change risks; together they can contribute to sustainable development objectives.

More accurate prediction of real climate change scenarios are needed for the Sierra Leone and this should be seen as a priority for policy makers. Developing appropriate policies and strategies for future housing, planning and economic development at the national, regional and local levels will require an understanding of the likely implications of changing flood risks, mudslides for the economic geography of the country. Publicly funded models of future housing supply and affordability should, again as a matter of course, explicitly include the effects of climate change and flood, mudslides risk scenarios – failure to do so only lends legitimacy to the cognitive dissonance of “business as usual” in policy and commercial practice. This is where policy comes into play.

I will recommend the establishment of a ‘National Housing Design Review Commission’ if not in existence already where developers, contractors and design teams can engage positively with local planning authorities. In order to promote better housing and good design, I think that all housing developments over a certain number of units should automatically be submitted to a ‘Local Housing Design Review taskforce’. Bad design and building codes must not be tolerated; ensuring greenfield development between housing provisions and the protection and enhancement of valued open spaces and local public parks are required. I believe that minimum spacing standards should be introduced and enforced for all new homes in Sierra Leone. A sustainable community is one with a wide mix of uses including homes, workplaces, commercial and leisure facilities, together with attractive and safe public spaces.

The provision of decent and affordable housing for all is a fundamental indicator of a civilised society. However too much of the new housing stock built in Sierra Leone  falls well short of where we need to be in terms of design and sustainability. Freetown still looks like an ‘ancient colonial village’. It’s very appalling to see that in the center of the capital city you will find houses in poor quality (outdated ‘pan bodi and bod Os’) built in the 60s’. This is extremely disappointing, and we believe that local authorities and planning inspectors must not tolerate poor housing.  But, it is important to know that majority of the homeowners in Sierra Leone are still poor, here is where any responsible ‘government’ comes in to subsidise construction efforts.

Contractors and clients alike often face capricious planning decisions. Housing design must be dealt with in a more professional, rational and consistent manner within the planning system. We want to see a planning system where planners are not only well resourced and well trained in design matters, but are also encouraged to seek expert advice from international housing planners where government and developer teams can engage positively with local planning authorities.

Alongside strong economic growth, a rising population and decreasing household sizes, decades of low output of new build housing in Sierra Leone has created a shortfall. The effect on supply of planning constraints and the commensurate housing shortage has led to a widening social and economic divide between those who are able to buy their own homes and those who cannot. It is sad to note that nearly all the houses in Freetown are rented in ‘United States Dollars’… what a total disrespect and blow to the ‘Leones’ which is supposed to be the national currency and business exchange! Government must discourage these practices by selfish homeowners henceforth.

The aftermath of the war that saw many people migrate to city towns has caused a crash in the numbers of new homes being built, in highly risky structures. The government should work with the private sector and industry partners to seek innovative new funding regimes for affordable housing and seeking stimuli that can kick starts the house building sector. Create more and affordable ‘Locus Housing’, which could be a powerful revenue source for the state. In fact, every child born in Sierra Leone today should be able to access a house or land…this is a fundamental human rights.

It must be recognised that streets and spaces are as important as buildings. Government, developers, architects and their building industry colleagues must explicitly encourage the provision of a well designed public realm. The right mix of buildings, green spaces and streetscape and the good design of traffic and car parking are crucial to the quality of residential environments. Research has shown that the good design of public spaces – in conjunction with high quality architectural design – can help boost civic pride. However design is not enough by itself – the public realm also needs to be maintained and managed well.

Freetown can no longer accommodate us all.  It is better that some of us are relocated to rural areas, relocate urban Freetown to somewhere around   ‘Lungai’, ‘Port Loko’ or some other locations in the country. We need a new agenda for decentralisation and infrastructural expansion (ideas for a ‘New City Programme’).  If the current generation of leaders and the government fail to lead this initiative, I am sure our next generation government would do thus. If Nigeria can planned a new capital city Abuja in 1991, replacing Lagos the previous capital, why not Sierra Leone?  The time is now for the people of Sierra Leone and the government to think globally, act locally.  We need to start thinking outside the box!

To sum it up, permit me to conclude in the words of Mr. Ban Ki Moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations who once said: “I am convinced that climate change, and what we do about it, will define us, our era, and ultimately the global legacy we leave for future generations. We hold the future in our hands. Together, we must ensure that our grand children will not have to ask why we failed to do the right thing, and let them suffer the consequences.”

By Messeh Kamara, UK

Messeh Kamara

About the author:  The author, Messeh Kamara, aged 23, based in the UK is a scholar of Law and International Development.  Messeh is co-founder of the ‘Common Climate Initiative’, and he is also currently managing youth and climate change activities of the Commonwealth globally, and has taken on several international environmental project management roles, including leading in the development of a youth position paper which was presented at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Trinidad and Tobago and the United Nations Conference on Climate Change COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009 respectively.  Messeh has also participated and greatly contributed to the UNICEF’s Children’s Climate Forum in Copenhagen, the UN HABITAT’s World Urban Forum, in China & Brazil, and the Commonwealth Climate Summit in London.   Email: messeh.kamara@youthcimate.org.uk

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