February 19, 2018 | Resource degradation

On the 14th August 2017, Freetown, Sierra Leone experienced one of the most devastating mudslides that left hundreds dead and thousands homeless. Survivors recounted this tragedy in animated expressions of a moving mountain- a portrayal of the accelerating mudslide down Mount Sugar Hope. Photos from the aftermath of the Sierra Leone Mudslide are a vivid depiction of the path of destruction, despair, and death in the wake of the country’s worst natural disasters. Sierra Leone has an intimate relationship with torrential rains and is ranked as the twelfth country globally with the highest precipitation levels by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Despite being accustomed to torrential rains, this particular mudslide was not wholly a natural disaster. It was a man-made catastrophe attributable to deforestation and poor planning of land use.

Deforestation, per se, is not a direct causative of mudslides but it accelerates the occurrence of mudslides. Gravitational movements are the genesis of landslides but their occurrence is exacerbated by several factors including the instability of the terrain due to lack of vegetative cover. Vegetative cover and primarily forest cover are instrumental in enhancing the water absorption holding ability of the soil. Sierra Leone’s location on a hilly terrain and the incidence of floods make the country naturally prone to landslides. The occurrence of this natural phenomenon has however been accelerated by man-made actions such as clearing of forest cover.

Deforestation is rampant in Sierra Leone as evidenced by the thousands of hectares of forest cover that has been lost to urbanization. One of the negative outcomes of the wanton destruction of the forest is mudslides. The August mudslide in Sierra Leone occurred after days of heavy rainfall surpassing the normal precipitation. As a result, the hilly terrain of Freetown became over saturated with water.  Destruction of the forest had already raided the ground’s water holding ability. Ultimately, the soil- bare of vegetative cover- tumbled down in one of the most devastating mudslides experienced in Sierra Leone.

Did the country’s poor urban development plans aggravate the situation?

Poor planning of land use is also to blame for the Sierra Leone mudslide. Despite the high population in Freetown, the city is characterized by poor and often non-existence urban development plans. Unregulated construction is arguably the biggest factors that intensified the devastation of the Sierra Leone mudslide. The mountainous ranges have been cleared and constructed leaving the soil bare of protective vegetative cover. Hillside construction although illegal has become the norm in Sierra Leone. In addition, illegal settlements have been put up into the floodplains. This has led to the reduction in natural water passageways increasing the affinity to floods. Surface runoff prominent during floods has further been aggravated by poor drainage systems in Freetown. Existing drainage systems are often blocked by waste hindering the flow of water and ultimately supporting the over saturation of soil that spurred the deadly Sierra Leone mudslides.

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