Sustainable Water and Environmental Management in the Western Area, Freetown, Sierra Leone in the face of Rapid Urbanization

Rapid urbanization in countries with little or zero awareness on climate change has affected natural habitats and contributed to the environmental and climate crisis. But the need for everyone — especially leaders and youths — to stand up and act is key in curbing the environmental and climate threats while creating a platform for sustainable solutions.

Freetown, Sierra Leone.

This is a guest blog by one young African from Sierra Leone, West Africa, who is passionate about creating sustainable solutions to the climate crisis.

Amara Tunkara is a water supply and distribution engineer at Guma Valley Water Company, a 2017 Mandela Washington Fellow and a 2018 Eco-Peace Leadership Fellow.

Without wasting any time, I will confidently describe the situation as critical.

Western Area accounts for over 20 percent of Sierra Leone’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, in the hillside slum areas of the city.

Freetown is currently a city with less than 60 percent of pipe-borne water supply coverage to many areas, especially in the East End, which goes 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 nonstop 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 the 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 and later became complementary sources to the great Guma dam as the population of the city continued to rise. These water sources originate from the Western Area Peninsular Forest, which by common sense imagination should have been declared a protected area for the security of the water sources that sustain our livelihoods downstream. (at a much cheaper and more affordable cost).

Amara Tunkara — Presentation Summit in Mandela Washington Fellowship in Washington DC, United States.

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 we are. In my candid view, it is the result of a complex mixture of causes ranging from negligence, poor inter-agency coordination, no enforcement of regulations, political indecisiveness, weak managements, and the lack of strong interest and unrelenting effort by the responsible authorities to prevent continued declination of the situation.

Potential risks if decisive action is not taken

Already there are many environmentally related problems confronting residents of the 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 courses, drainages, wetlands, and riparian buffer zones will result in 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, etc.
  1. It should all start with 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 Barack 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 doing things more professionally.
  2. 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 in 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.
  3. 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 10 meters, adequate drainage planning in developing communities must be done before construction approval is given. This agency must be well equipped with highly motivated professionals.

Facts about the author

Amara Tunkara is a water supply and distribution engineer at Guma Valley Water Company, a 2017 Mandela Washington Fellow and a 2018 Eco-Peace Leadership Fellow.

Amara Tunkara — Eco-Peace leadership fellowship in South Korea.

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