akisawyerr1_ CARL DE SOUZAAFP via Getty Images_freetown Carl de Souza/AFP via Getty Images

Empowering Healthy, Resilient Hometowns

Mitigating and adapting to climate change require good urban planning, particularly climate-sensitive design. But, despite the need for rapid action, cities like Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, often face high and unnecessary impediments.

FREETOWN – With the recent conclusion of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, the challenge of turning words into action begins. But in capitals around the world, administrative and political hurdles are hindering governments’ ability to address the climate crisis with the urgency it requires.

I know this firsthand. In Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, local leaders are trying to address climate change in ways that will help the community become healthier and more resilient, but bureaucracy at the national level is a complicating factor.

Freetown does not make a significant contribution to global greenhouse-gas emissions, but the city wants to do more to reduce its carbon footprint, particularly in light of climate change’s impact on the health of its residents. Building a healthy city is one of the four key areas in the Transform Freetown agenda, which the local council launched in 2019 to prepare our city for the challenges we face.

The population of Freetown has expanded in recent years, driven in part by climate migration from other parts of Sierra Leone. As changing weather patterns make it more difficult to earn a living through subsistence farming, rural residents have flocked to the capital. Many of these newcomers move into informal settlements along the coast or in the hills surrounding the city. The growth of these settlements has contributed to deforestation, which in turn leads to rising temperatures during the dry season and increased risk of flooding and mudslides during the rainy season.

The extreme heat worsens Freetown’s already poor air quality and increases the incidence of respiratory disease among residents. Extreme heat also contributes to water shortages, which bring additional health risks.

To address these challenges, Freetown became the first city in Africa to appoint a chief heat officer. In this new position, Eugenia Kargbo, a member of the Mayor’s Delivery Unit whose portfolio already includes climate-related issues, will work to improve the available data on heat and housing. She will then use these data to develop policies to mitigate the impact of extreme heat on our community and suggest ways to upgrade Freetown’s informal settlements to alleviate the growing threat. For example, a significant number of residential structures in the informal settlements are made of corrugated iron sheets that trap heat. One of Kargbo’s tasks will be to identify alternative affordable building materials.

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These materials also must be able to withstand rushing water, given the informal settlements’ vulnerability to frequent floods. Kroo Bay, one of Freetown’s largest coastal settlements, has been inundated every year since 2008. Flooding not only destroys property; it also places residents at greater risk of water-borne diseases such as cholera. In 2012, a cholera outbreak infected more than 25,000 people and killed over 400.

To reduce flooding, efforts are being made to improve and expand drainage systems in hotspots around the city. Better sanitation is also a factor in reducing cholera outbreaks, and significant strides are being made in the management of solid waste. But current dumpsites are at capacity, and an agreement on the allocation of land for a new dumpsite has yet to be reached with Sierra Leone’s central government.

Like many of Freetown’s challenges, many factors contribute to the problems caused by extreme heat and flooding. In addition to climate change, poor urban planning, poor interagency coordination, and lack of financing all play a part.

Building a healthy, resilient city requires good urban planning, particularly climate-sensitive design. But, despite the need for rapid action, cities often face high and unnecessary impediments in developing and implementing such plans. For example, Sierra Leone’s Local Government Act, adopted in 2004, gives city councils the authority to make and carry out plans for municipalities, but central government ministries remain in control of critical urban management functions like land use planning, zoning, and issuance of building permits. As a result, these processes are slow and inefficient, leaving local leaders and urban planners limited scope to make meaningful changes.

Effective climate-change mitigation and adaptation in cities like Freetown requires putting politics aside. Protecting residents from the consequences of global warming – like extreme heat, heavy rain, and increased risk of disease – requires officials at all levels of government to work together to develop and implement creative solutions. Otherwise, our citizens will continue to suffer the most significant effects of a crisis they did little to create.