SIERRA LEONE PREPARED for the burials of 160 victims of devastating floods on Thursday, as fears grew of more mudslides and accusations of government “inaction” over deforestation and poor urban planning mounted.
After it emerged that at least 105 of the dead were children, citizens and experts alike questioned why the government of President Ernest Bai Koroma had not done more to tackle illegal construction in the overcrowded capital of Freetown.
A Red Cross official told AFP meanwhile that smaller mudslides had occurred since Monday in eastern Freetown and in Sierra Leone’s second city of Bo, with the rainy season far from over.
“There is a fear that more trouble is imminent,” in Freetown, a coastal city of around one million people, said Adbul Nasir of the International Red Cross.
Adding to the danger, the Office of National Security, which is coordinating the government’s response, was informed that a mountain which partially collapsed on Monday had cracked at another point.
Although the death toll is officially 300, rescue workers privately agree the toll is far higher, and one told AFP that in line with an unofficial morgue toll, 400 graves had been dug for the victims, who will be buried over a two-day period.
The UN has said 4,000 people are affected by the mudslides and flooding.
Death toll expected to rise
Commenting on the aftermath of the mud slide, a worker with Irish aid organisation Goal said that the death toll would continue to rise over the coming days.
“Although 300 bodies have been accounted for so far from this week’s tragedy, the death toll is expected to rise rapidly in the coming hours and days,” said Goal country director for Sierra Leone Anna Fraenzel.
Hundreds of people have also lost their homes, and with the floods having ripped through several informal slum settlements dotted throughout the city, thousands more are expected to be displaced.
Fraenzel said that the most important thing to focus on now was the search and rescue effort.
Burials to begin
With the aim of clearing the overflowing central morgue, the first burials were due to begin at 1500 GMT (4pm Irish time) in Waterloo, a nearby town where many victims of the Ebola crisis that hit the nation in 2014 were also laid to rest, though the ceremony was delayed.
Idalia Amaya, emergency response coordinator for Catholic Relief Services in Freetown, said some families hit by Ebola would now be burying loved ones killed in the floods.
“People are going through a complicated grieving process… first Ebola, now the mudslides,” she told AFP, confirming that 160 people would be buried on Thursday.
‘No place to sleep’
The disaster began on Monday when heavy rains hit the city and the partial collapse of a hillside triggered mudslides, engulfing homes and wreaking destruction.
For the thousands of survivors left homeless, UN agencies distributed food and hygiene kits to those sheltering in government centres and in the homes of neighbours and family members.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said 3D mapping of affected neighbourhoods was taking place around Sugar Loaf mountain, which partially collapsed on Monday, and said voluntary evacuations may extend to more areas, potentially increasing the number of displaced.
“We have no place now to sleep, only in a neighbour’s house,” said Abdul Bendu, in the Pentagon community, which sits directly below the devastated hilltop village of Regent.
UNICEF called the damage “unprecedented” and warned children were at risk, while the UN humanitarian affairs office said four registration centres for unaccompanied minors had been established.
Others began to ask why such a tragedy was allowed to happen in the first place, given the clockwork regularity of annual flooding in Freetown.
Amnesty International said the mudslides “grimly illustrate the human cost of the government’s failure to implement housing and land policies,” in a statement today.
“I think it’s the deforestation,” said resident Samuel Lackoh, speaking to AFP in Pentagon.
In recent years, trees have been cut down from the Western peninsular forest on Freetown’s limits, with everything from shacks to mansions springing up on the slopes.
Jamie Hitchen, an expert with the Africa Research Institute, told AFP that poor urban planning had been a problem for years, but that the government response had “broadly been one of inaction”.
“Particularly in the areas around Regent, construction of houses illegally is being undertaken at all levels of society with impunity,” he said in an email to AFP.
Identifying deficiencies in waste management, preventing deforestation, urban planning and the provision of decent housing, Hitchen said “a problem of politics” meant that the city’s drains were blocked and dump sites were full.
“There is no urban planning to speak of in the city,” he added.
Sierra Leone is one of the world’s poorest countries.
- © AFP 2017 With reporting from Cormac Fitzgerald