Photo by bobthemagicdragon on Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

SIERRA LEONE: When Climate Change Hits

By Mariama Kandeh

As we approach the COP21 climate summit, recent reports of flooding in Japan, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone must be a wakeup call to what we are to expect in the future.

Mkandeh | Sierra Leone

Our plane was to land at 5:45 Freetown time. But it couldn’t. There had been a very heavy downpour and the tarmac was covered in water. The pilot announced that he would be circling the Atlantic Ocean for about fifteen minutes so that the tarmac could be cleared of water. Fifteen minutes passed. We were still in the air. It was after 30 minutes that our hearts began to race. There was a deafening silence on board. Everyone was praying silently. Even a pin drop could be heard. To me, it looked like a movie, but in this one I was playing a role.

I was praying too. I was reading all I could remember from my Quranic classes. I almost knelt down like I was at an altar. The wind was heavy outside. We could not only hear it but felt it too. The plane went up and down, up and down. My heart was beating fast and so were the hearts of my fellow passengers.

I started thinking about death and all I had heard about the hereafter. My mind went back to the 11 years of civil war I had lived through in Sierra Leone and I became hopeful. I remembered another flight to Sierra Leone where the plane almost crashed.  ‘Yes, I am not going to die,’ I whispered to myself.

Our plane was still playing see-saw; going up and coming down. It was after 45 minutes that another announcement came from the pilot. This time, it was good news. He was going to land the plane.

I could feel the relief in the faces of passengers. For once, passengers could turn and look at each other. Finally, our plane started going down and down and down and finally landed. There was a huge round of applause from passengers. Again I thought I was in a cinema watching a movie.

“Thank you Jesus,” the lady sitting on my right said. “Alhamdullilah,” the man sitting behind me sighed. As we disembarked, everyone was exchanging their 45-minute experience that seemed like a decade.

All because of rain water on the tarmac.

I had flown into the Freetown airport several times from my current home in the UK. Although I had visited in both the dry season and the rainy season, this incident was a real shock to me. I learned that the heavy downpour of rain and flooding throughout the country’s lowlands was a result of climatic changes.

In 2006, I attended the UN Climate Change Conference in Nairobi and witnessed the tree planting ceremony pioneered by late Professor Wangari Maathai and the Maasai women of Kenya.  I did not then imagine that one day my beautiful Sierra Leone would be experiencing the devastating impacts of climate change.

This terrifying plane ride occurred two years ago.  It was the beginning of a trip that opened my eyes to the climate challenges facing my homeland. On my first week of the trip, the King Jimmy Bridge broke. There were reports of a landslide at Tengbeh town and Greybush; there was flooding at Aberdeen and Kroobay in Freetown. The effects of climate change were made worse by the lack of proper drainage systems and environmental considerations by the government’s housing and country planning division.

The devastation has continued. Since the rainy season started in May this year, the country has witnessed some of the worst flooding it has ever seen. Floods have left several people dead and thousands displaced. The torrential rains are a striking reminder that climate change is indeed real.

Over 70% of the flood victims are women and children. According to UNFPA Sierra Leone, many were pregnant women, lactating mothers, and children under five years old.

In Freetown, displaced flood victims are hosted at the national stadium and the Attouga stadium. Already, Sierra Leone’s resources to cater for them have been suppressed by the Ebola outbreak. Very little is left to answer to emergencies like flooding. We cannot imagine what impacts flooding could have had on the spread of the Ebola virus if these incidents had occurred at the peak of the outbreak.

As I write this article, there are fears that heavy rains could cause the hydro power dam in Bumbuna in northern Sierra Leone to overflow. According to reports, residents of the town, scared of a flood, have sought refuge in the hilltops.

Incidents like this should surely alert authorities and locals about the effects of our activities on our environment. All hands must be on deck to face the challenges of climate change.

Even with less industrial activity than many countries, Sierra Leone is still involved in environmental degradation. Wood is used for coal and there is widespread timber trade, deforestation, and bush burning. Moreover, slums such as Bormeh, Kroobay, and Goderich in the west end of Freetown and Moa Wharf and Susan’s Bay in the east  put pressure on the sea as humans struggle to find a home.

While in primary school, we were taught wildlife conservation and environmental protection. Every year we were involved in tree planting activities. What happened to such initiatives? The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Sierra Leone has been engaging with communities to adopt measures to combat environmental degradation and prevent some of the impacts of climate change. The agency has been on a nation-wide education campaign, but yet their advice has not been heeded.

Widespread poverty has not helped the campaign. People are not willing to change because they lack alternatives to provide their livelihoods. For instance, when I visited the Freetown peninsular forest in 2013, our guide told me that a good part of the forest has been destroyed by the burning of forest trees for coal. Selling coal is a good business for small entrepreneurs who are mainly poor and uneducated. Our guide said efforts by the police have proved futile because of widespread corruption since the coal sellers usually bribe the police guards who are meant to protect the forest from such practice.

Freetown, like most towns in the country, is overlooked by hills. Deforestation due to housing construction on hilltops is a major cause of flooding. So is the burning of trees for coal; dumping of wastes into the drainage; sand and stone mining on the hills and coastal areas; and the removal of mangroves.

As we approach the COP21 climate summit, recent reports of flooding in Japan, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone must be a wake-up call to what we are to expect in the future. Sadly for Sierra Leone, the EPA has predicted drought for the country. There must be plans to face such predictions and women must be at the fore of such plans.

Appropriate measures need to be considered to tackle the effects of climate change. We must create carbon sinks by re-establishing forests and planting new ones. Deforestation is a common practice in nations like Sierra Leone with large logging industries. We need to discourage this.

Furthermore, the EPA should continue to sensitize communities about the effects of human activities on the environment. The EPA should also involve women’s groups in tree planting activities since women are disproportionately affected by climate change. The government should also enforce protection of forests across the country.

Government agencies and their partners should work towards finding alternative means of business for charcoal sellers to prevent the continued burning of forest trees for coal.

Finally, all tiers of government, international agencies, and development partners are required to increase funding to climate change projects in Sierra Leone for a sustainable solution.

For most people onboard the Boeing 737 British Airways flight to Sierra Leone on that very wet July morning, this frightening incident will always echo in their minds when they think of visiting the country.  There is no justification for a delayed landing due to a waterlogged tarmac. We need to be prepared for the effects of climate change.


World Pulse partnered with WECAN International to crowdsource stories about gender and climate justice. In the lead up to the COP21 climate talks in Paris, we are highlighting select voices on this urgent topic. 

Topic Environment