I am literally switching audience as any conscious ordinary patriotic Sierra Leonean could do. Yet, I am writing with a cautious mind, determined to, as I have always been doing as a professional, point out facts on important issues. But this time, I intend to share with fellow citizens, my viewpoint on the critical nature of the situation surrounding our environment, but with specific attention to water supply and sanitation in the Western Area where 21% of the population lives. If I could attempt to lay the point bare and direct, we, as a people who called ourselves a nation of Sierra Leone, are bent on destroying our very living condition by way of our careless deeds, and failure to enforce or institute regulations that protect the environment. This is also the case in some parts of the provinces. I know I may be misconstrued by cynics who I consider to be nothing but blind and lost or even unpatriotic. I really do not care much about them. I sincerely care about the future of my two little children and all other children of this country to whom we shall be leaving this land. A wise one once said: “We do not inherit this land from our forefathers; we have borrowed it from our children.” We therefore owe it to them and our conscience to protect it from destruction.
Sierra Leone is a nation that has everything but still lacks everything. I say this because of the common understanding that if you have everything but lack the consciousness to protect and utilize it well, then you lack the most important thing. Let us now go to the background of the issue in details.
At the start of the 21st century, the world gathered at the UN millennium summit to respond to the world’s major challenges as they appeared by the year 2000. By that same period, Sierra Leone was reaching the climax of a decade-long bloody civil war that had brought every facet of its social and economic gains to complete wreckage. The war had destabilized the demographics and displaced hundreds of thousands of people from rural to urban centres. As the social recovery plan (Commission for Reconstruction, Resettlement and Rehabilitation) did not appear to be adequately implemented, thousands of displaced people remain settled on the fringes, slums, and hills overlooking the city of Freetown. This is a city that was starting to grapple with the burden of delivering basic services to its inhabitants. The question of whether this once beautiful city, which sits on the edge of an iconic forest-covered mountain-belt with enormous water resource potential, would survive or cope with the increasing demand of its limited facilities, began to loom. The answer was to be drawn from what kind of plans were there to prevent potential damages and maximize the delivery of basic services. Water supply and environmental sanitation sustainability was subsequently about to start facing severe threat. With the start of the MDG at hand just when the war ended, it appeared that the country was going to have to take a sudden and coincidental transition from destruction to reconstruction. The development of an effective national strategic plan to achieve these goals and in the process protect the environment and water resources of the Western Area for example, was what anyone could expect to have seen in the year 2000. The situation of water supply and environmental sanitation of Freetown and its environs 15 years later shows the kind of effort that was made in that direction which I guess you will agree with me, is nothing good to write home about.
There has been an indiscriminate deforestation of the Western Area Peninsular Forest for housing construction which has led to the destruction of watersheds. The visible consequences have been shortage of water supply to Freetown and flooding. The presence of the many environmental management sector agencies complicates comprehension about why and how we got to this situation. With urbanization seeming to be an unstoppable occurrence in Sierra Leone due to many social reasons, the need for a robust approach in dealing with the imminent problem of water and sanitation in the capital city and the rapidly developing communities around the Rural Western Area is overdue.
Today, much more ambitious Goals, The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are at hand. Goal 6 which seeks to ensure availability and sustainable water and sanitation for all by 2030 is the goal of interest here. The question this article wishes to throw light on is whether Sierra Leone is getting the plan right to achieve sustainable water supply and environmental sanitation specifically for its capital city of Freetown and the rest of the Western Area amid the rapid and somewhat unplanned settlements development from its hills to its slums. I will focus this article on the following questions:
i. How important is water supply and environmental sanitation to socio-economic development?
ii. What is the current situation and problems surrounding water, sanitation and environmental sustainability in Western Area in particular and in the country in general?
iii. What are the potential risks if we fail to take decisive action now?
iv. What can we do to address the situation?
How important is water supply and environmental sanitation to socio-economic development
Probably since creation, the world has known that water is life and quality of life improves with better sanitation. The nexus of improved access to safe drinking water and sanitation and the socio-economic development of a nation is abutted by a thin line. This hypothesis is vindicated by the conclusion of Fogden (2009) in her study of ‘Access to safe drinking water and its impact to global economic growth’, where she further concluded that the lack of access to water is likely to impinge on world economic development by 2050 with emerging economies becoming the worst victims. The foregoing underscores why emerging economies like Sierra Leone must carefully plan to sustainably address water and sanitation issue if it wants to achieve sustainable socio-economic growth.
Water and Sanitation are two bed fellows. A decline in one can affect improvement on the other. The importance of safe drinking water and improved sanitation to healthy living and socio-economic development of a nation cannot be over emphasized. Poor environmental sanitation creates opportunity for diseases causing organisms like virus and bacteria to persist in the environment and infect humans mostly through food and water. It is also a risk to water sources contamination. Limited access to adequate and safe drinking water is a potential cause for incidences of water-related diseases like diarrhoea, skin and respiratory conditions, blood and nervous disorders, and mental impairment. The UN reported in 2013 that water related diseases account for 80% of illnesses and death in the developing world. This statistics cannot be unrepresentative of the case of Sierra Leone with an abysmally low MDG result (13%) on access to improved sanitation. It is without doubt that high morbidity rate takes a heavy toll on the Disability Affected Life Years (DALY) of citizens of a nation and also contributes to low productivity and life expectancy. It could thus be reasonable to conclude that sustainable access to water and sanitation positively impacts the per capita income, reduces poverty, and triggers an overall increase in the living standard of a nation.
Without wasting any time, I will confidently describe the situation as critical. Western Area accounts for over 20% of the country’s population and is subsequently the most densely populated region in the country. This figure is likely to rise at a much faster rate with the emergence of rapidly developing communities along the Freetown to Waterloo highway, on the hill side slum areas of the city. Freetown is currently a city with less than 65% of pipe borne water supply coverage with many areas especially in the East End going without a drop in the depth of the dry season. This was not the case two decades ago when every corner of the city enjoyed non-stop water supply, and reservoirs overflowing for months. With potentially two consecutive years of declaration of emergency water supply, it becomes certain that the situation may worsen in coming years unless adequate response is made. Many factors are responsible for the deteriorating situation of water supply in the city that in my view doesn’t appear to be given serious attention. The most critical of which is water catchment protection. Attention appears to be more focused on response than mitigation of this critical problem. In the end, the problem will become complicated and subsequently impossible or extremely expensive to solve than it could have been if timely and decisive actions had been taken.
Freetown has about eight local water supply sources (Kongo, Sugar Loaf, Mamba Ridge, Thunder Hill, Cemetery Blue Water, White Water, and Charlotte) that were developed to supply Freetown and other areas which later became complementary sources to the great Guma dam as the population of the city continues to rise. These water sources originate from the Western Area Peninsular Forest which by common sense imagination should have long been declared a protected area for the security of the water sources that sustains our livelihood downstream at a much cheaper and affordable cost. Today, almost all of these once vibrant sources are at the brink of extinction as a result of human activities that could have been prevented. Even the densely forested Guma catchment and reservoir, a natural endowment in the region, that provides water supply for Freetown at less energy cost, is currently facing serious threat of deforestation. This situation is gradually affecting the supply potential of this great source. This is unimaginable and poses a serious question of what kind of people are we. In my candid view, it is the result of a complex mixture of causes ranging from poor inter-agency coordination, no enforcement of regulations, to the lack of strong interest and unrelenting effort by the responsible authorities to prevent continued declination of the situation.
On the area of sanitation, a summary of the problem is the absence of an effective and sustainable waste management system for the current Freetown situation. A city with virtually no semblance of engineering application for upgrading or management of its sanitation systems is doom to slide into a very messy situation spanning from contamination of water sources to entrenchment of sanitation related diseases on a wide scale. In the developing areas in the Western Area (and even in the three provincial cities) where there are massive ongoing constructions of houses, adequate provision for wastewater or storm water drainage system is hardly made. It is the land owners who determine where and how an access road must be directed (including the width and alignment). These are in many cases done unprofessionally and without consideration for future utility service lines and wastewater drainages. Down in the city, drainages are not only filled with sediments eroded from the destructed hills over the city, but are further clogged with wastewater and solid wastes disposed of into them by residents. There are evidences of faecal sludge from pit latrines emptied into primary drainages or buried into the ground. These happenings simply point to the fact that there are either no regulations on household solid and liquid waste management or they are not enforced. There is little scope on this piece to cavil on the reckless manner in which primary drainages, brooks, riparian buffer zones, estuaries, and swamplands are being constricted or engulfed with embankments, retaining walls, and slabs for housing construction even within the city centre not to mention slums and other remote areas. Instead of expanding on primary drainages to contain the increased run-off resulting from deforestation and pavement area enlargement, we build houses on and over them yet we wonder why we battle with flooding in many parts of the city virtually on an annual basis. The condition of Freetown’s solid waste dumpsites and the activities within them are very pathetic to imagine for a city in the twenty-first century. All these are happening in the faces of the numerous sector agencies and operatives in the country such as EPA, Freetown City Council, Ministry of Health and Sanitation, ONS, Ministry of Lands, housing and country Planning, parliamentarians, and civil society groups. What plans are there and who is responsible for implementing what aspect is not clearly known.
Potential risks if decisive action is not taken
Already there are many environmentally related problems confronting residents of the Western Region. Below is a summary of imminent problems, some of which will be very severe unless the right decisions are taken.
1. Deforestation of the Western Area Peninsular Forest will lead to water sources extinction and exacerbate climate change and environmental effects such as temperature extremes, flooding, landslides and sloop failures.
2. There may be heightened water shortages in the Western Area due to source depletion amidst rising demand. The Guma, Kongo, and Sugar Loaf catchments in the Western Area are critical in this case.
3. More expensive water supply projects may be required to meet future demand. These include source availability (of which seawater desalination may become necessary), acquisition of pipeline access, and strategic location for reservoir construction.
4. Water related diseases may persist in communities with inadequate access to improved sanitation and safe drinking water.
5. Uncontrolled development on protected areas such as slopes, water course, drainages, wetlands and riparian buffer zones will result to environmental damage and climate change impacts.
6. The socio-economic impacts of inadequate access to water and sanitation will loom harder. These include the effect on education, high DALY, low life expectancy, low economic growth due to investor dissatisfaction, to mention but a few.
Some recommendations that can be implemented to address the situation
i. It should all start by Sierra Leoneans developing the consciousness that this is a problem we have created that no one else, not even our bilateral friends or donors can solve if we are not committed to do what must be done. If I could borrow from the words of President Barrack Obama, “The future of Africa is up to Africans”. We must go back to the drawing board with a spirit of patriotism to do the right things such as enforcing regulations and do things more professionally and patriotically in the interest of the generation yet unborn.
ii. There should be an immediate physical delimitation of a green zone in the Western Area Peninsular Forest and enforcement of its protection as a national reserve. This call has been on the spotlight for a very long time but what is preventing the enforcement is still not understood. A genuine political will is the first thing I believe is required to achieve this goal.
iii. Government should establish an agency to be responsible for Integrated Infrastructure and Built Environment Development Planning. This agency will undertake the region’s land use planning with environmental protection being one of its focuses. It will also undertake policy development, review and enforcement of standards and guidelines on areas such as land survey and housing construction. For instance, a minimum access road width of 10m, adequate drainage planning in developing communities must be done before construction approval is given. This agency must be well equipped with highly motivated professionals.
iv. Government should establish an agency to be responsible for water resources management. It is understood that the Ministry of Water Resources is working towards this and a bill for its establishment is in the process of enactment.
v. The solid waste management system needs to be reviewed to a more effective one that applies feasible strategies for storage, collection, transportation, treatment and disposal/end-use process. This will obviously include a review of the location of the Freetown solid waste landfill sites and development of engineered landfill sites at strategic locations.
vi. Ensuring access to water and sanitation for all by 2030 requires investing in adequate infrastructure and providing adaptable sanitation systems. Development of a Water Supply and sanitation plan for the Western Area is urgently required. This can be done by undertaking a detailed engineering study that produces a Master Plan of water and sanitation for the entire Western Area.
In conclusion, despite the severity of the level of damage that has been done, it is still possible to repair and prevent further damage by simply directing the necessary attention to this hanging disaster before it gets too late.
Ing. Alimamy Kolipha Kamara (Author)