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Natural disaster

Sierra Leone: Flood survivors stuck in temporary shelters

It's been over three months since flash floods and a mudslide in Freetown, Sierra Leone, left 1,141 dead or reported missing. Of the 6,000 persons affected, many continue to live in temporary shelters.

The two camps in the west of the capital should have been closed down in mid-November. That was the government's plan – to first provide temporary accommodation for the survivors and then more permanent housing solutions. 

Following the intensive flash floods and the mudslide on August 14, three private construction companies stepped in to assist the government of Sierra Leone, in its provision of permanent and safe housing for the survivors. Over 50 houses and an orphanage are in their final stages of completion in Mile Six, a neighborhood in the eastern part of Freetown.

At the same time, the government are giving survivors 300 US dollars (254 euros) per household, to pay for the rent in their new homes. The recipients are required to sign a consent form, that binds them to vacate the camps and refrain from making further claims for damages in the future. While some have taken up the government's offer, others have refused to agree to the conditions. 

Philomena Isatu Turay works for Sierra Leone's Office of National Security. As the camp manager of one of the camps situated in a neighborhood called Juba, she knows what some of the survivors had hoped for. "Some were looking forward to owning a house,” she explained, not renting. "That's why some of them refuse to sign the consent form."

According to Turay, the affected persons do have the possibility of buying the new houses, but for the cash-strapped flood survivors the costs are often too high. "These houses are meant for them, but they are for mortgage. You know, there's no way you can get a house, even outside Sierra Leone without paying for those houses," said Turay. "But it is a soft loan. So if you are in a position to get the house on mortgage, then we'll give you the house."

For some camp residents like Kadiatu Marah, the government aid is all that they have. "My husband died in the mudslide. He left me with two children, one in form two [of secondary school] and the other in form three. At the moment, none of them are attending school," she told DW.  Her husband's parents also died in the flood. "My husband has no surviving family members left to help me take care of the children. The government has assisted me. If it didn't rescue me and offer me a temporary home, I would have gone mad."

Tents set up in a temporary shelter (C. Anthony)

These tents have been home to the displaced residents for the last three months

Preventing future disasters

Another main concern, aside from providing housing to the affected communities, is preventing any future disasters. While the floods and the mudslide were a result of the heavy rains, human activities such as sand and rock mining, clearing away trees and vegetation, as well as poor urban planning and construction are believed to have exacerbated the effect. "When you look at Sugar Loaf, one of the highest mountains in Freetown, there have been a lot of human activities there in terms of removing the forest cover and constructing houses," Joseph Rahall, from the Sierra Leonean NGO Green Scenery, told DW shortly after the disaster:  "people fail to realize that those parts of the city are not sitting on firm rocks. They are sitting on red earth which easily becomes saturated with water." 

Both the government and the people are aware of the problem, Rahall explained, but the land for housing in Freetown is scarce. "I really think that houses constructed in certain areas where they are not supposed to construct, should be brought down and the government should take a firm position on this. Where applicable, if there are ways that people can be resettled or given land in other places, let them do so," he argued.

According to the United Nations Sierra Leone office, proper planning and risk assessment is needed to prevent further disasters, as well as a coordinated approach by all those responsible.

Blankets, mats and supplies for displaced people (C. Anthony)

Many of the people who have lost their homes largely rely on help from outside

According to Turay, Sierra Leone's government has been addressing the housing issue. "We will not be able to stop disasters," she said. "But we have been engaging the communities, especially in disaster-prone areas. We have our volunteers and they have been talking to communities [to make sure they don't build] their houses in disaster-prone areas." Turay is confident that the government's efforts will bear fruit. "Together with the Ministry of Land, I think we will be able to minimize the impact."

Nevertheless, there is still much work to do. According to the Damage and Loss Assessment survey, a program supported by the UN and the World Bank, over 900 buildings were damaged by the flash floods and mudslide. The survey estimates that 13.29 million US dollars (11.28 euros) are needed for the overall recovery.

Lina Jah contributed to this report.

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