Sierra Leone capital confronts water crisis

Freetown plans to set up a water fund in the next year that would pool investment for projects to improve water security.

28 August 2019 | Economics

It's all about trying to shape the mentality of the community toward conservation. - Simon Okoth, Urban resilience manager: CRS

Nellie Peyton - Half the year, Iyatunde Kamara worries torrential rains will wash her house off its hillside and into the rivers of waste that flow through Sierra Leone's capital Freetown.

The other half, she rarely has enough water to fill a pot.

It is a problem faced by nearly everyone in the rundown city of 1.5 million, built at the foot of mountains rising out of the ocean on Africa's western coast.

"Water has always been a struggle," said Kamara, who like her neighbours has no plumbing and fetches water from a stream.

Abundant downpours during the rainy season bring deadly floods every year. In 2017, a mudslide killed more than 1 000 people and left thousands homeless.

Experts largely blamed the disaster on rapid urbanisation driving residents to claim trees and land to build new homes.

But officials and aid workers are increasingly worried about another trend: diminishing water reserves.

Freetown's water comes from reservoirs in the mountains, surrounded by forest. But as trees are cut to make room for construction, rain is draining off the hillsides rather than seeping through their roots into the soil and streams.

"Most of the water collected should be feeding into the dam, but for now it flows out of the area because of deforestation," said water minister Jonathan Tengbe.

"The dam itself is under threat at the moment and there is massive need for us to protect the watershed," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, referring to the Guma Dam, the biggest in the former British colony.

Taking cues from Nairobi and Cape Town, Freetown plans to set up a water fund in the next year that would pool investment for projects to improve water security, such as planting trees.

But the challenges are massive as the crowded city grows, its proximity to the coast leaving it nowhere to expand but towards the forest.

Dry season

Water is so hard to obtain in the dry season that there is an expression, "water for water", which refers to girls trading sex for access to a tap where they can fill their buckets.

"We have a lot of girls impregnated because of this water business," said Yirah Conteh, head of the Federation of Urban and Rural Poor (FEDURP), a civil society group.

Freetown's water treatment plant and pipe system were built in the 1960s for a city about one third the size. Even people with houses on the grid have water only three times per week.

Others roam the streets with jerry cans, looking for a trickle from a broken pipe.

"It is very, very serious," said Conteh. "If the communities had water we could be free from a lot of disease."

Children are sent to stand in line in the morning and often miss school waiting their turn at water points, he said.

Girls also skip school when menstruating because they have no water to wash themselves, said minister Tengbe, estimating that 50% of the city's health problems could be solved by a more sustained water supply.

The issue goes beyond deforestation, but in some places its impact can be seen.

In one community overlooking the Tower Hill neighbourhood, people get water from a natural spring. The area was deforested years ago, but more recently a college re-planted trees.

"At first we didn't have water when they chopped down all the trees. This was dry," said local resident Fuaid Samura, standing by the spring. Now surrounded by vegetation, it is flowing again.

Shrinking forest

Some of Freetown's hilltops remain green, but the dirt-brown cityscape is creeping up.

The forest surrounding the reservoirs is a national park, home to chimpanzees and rare birds. But there is no fence around it, and the laws meant to regulate construction hold little sway.

People cut into the forest for charcoal and farming as well as building houses, Freetown's mayor, Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"It's all about trying to shape the mentality of the community toward conservation," said Simon Okoth, urban resilience manager for charity Catholic Relief Services (CRS).

CRS, which is spearheading the water fund, recently started working with residents at the top of the hills to reinforce the value of trees. It plans to plant 25 000 by next year.

The sense of urgency is not always shared by the people.

"In the community not everyone accepts our opinion," said Abdulai Allieu, a community organiser for FEDURP.

"Some welcome the idea [to plant trees], other say they need room to build," he said.

There are few trees left in this part of Freetown and in front of some houses, there are knee-high stumps. The trees were cut to provide a better view, he said.

Long-term plans

"I think the biggest challenge is a lack of appreciation of how quickly the deforestation is happening and how far-reaching the impact is," mayor Aki-Sawyerr said.

She wants to see the city plant a million trees next year, and said she is in discussions about environmental bylaws and new building codes that could help protect the forest.

While halting deforestation is a necessary step, it will not be enough to fix Freetown's water shortage, officials said.

The city's population is expected to reach 2 million people in a few years, said Tengbe, the water minister.

The capacity of the Guma dam, about 80 000 cubic metres per day, is little more than a quarter of what Tengbe estimated is needed to provide a reliable water supply for the city.

The government is doing a feasibility study to pipe water 60 kilometres to Freetown from the Rokel River, the country's biggest.

Critics say this would be prohibitively expensive and that the water is too polluted from mining and farming upstream.

At the Guma dam, just half an hour from the city, waterfalls flow past the treatment plant, an excess the current system is unable to catch.

The reservoir overflows for months every year, draining into the ocean. An employee at the water company said the obvious solution is another dam.

"There is a lot of opportunity," said Okoth of CRS, looking over the still-green valley from the dam. – Nampa/Reuters

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