The tragedy that comes with the change in climate that caused landslides and flooding recently hit Sierra Leone, one of the jewels of Africa. What can we learn from this moment of pain?
Let’s put things into perspective. In Sierra Leone – and across Africa – the science is unequivocal: Climate change is a contributory factor, alongside man-made elements like deforestation and encroachment, to the kind of disaster that hit Sierra Leone in August 2017. This is no longer an abstract issue.
According to the US National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center, Sierra Leone received an unprecedented amount of rainfall this year – three times the normal seasonal rainfall. Such torrential rains are a clear sign of the changing climate. In August 2017, at the height of the rainy season, Freetown received an unprecedented average of 539,9mm of rainfall. With its land size of 356,9km2, Freetown had an average of 190 million cubic meters of rain water to drain. This extreme volume of water, combined with human factors like encroachment on natural environment such as creeks and wetlands, which are the natural drainage and storage systems for flood waters, as well as construction on flood-prone areas and inefficient drainage systems, among other factors, cumulatively precipitated this disaster.
In early 2017, new data from the UK Met Office, the United Kingdom’s national weather service, and the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) show that the earth’s temperature has increased to about 1,1°C above pre-industrial levels. This is dangerously close – just 0,4°C away – from the 1,5°C threshold set by the Paris Climate Change Agreement to prevent the worsening effects of climate change. At this rate, the vulnerability of Africa’s coastal cities is unprecedented. Sea level rise is projected to hit coastal cities – 14% higher than the global average by 2100 for the fast approaching over 4°C warming scenario. The impact will stretch far and wide beyond Freetown to expose millions to risk of flooding. By 2050, high numbers are projected in coastal cities of Mozambique (5million), Tanzania (2million), Cameroon (2million), Egypt (1million), Senegal (0.5million), and Morocco (0.5million). Such flooding will reverse economic and development gains with the ensuing health impacts and damage to infrastructure, loss of tourist sites and disruption in food supply. It will also expose the populations to elevated food prices, loss of livelihoods and strife.
As far as ecosystems degradation is concerned, Africa loses up to USD68 billion annually. This means that the continent’s natural buffer against such impending climate change effects is being lost at a rate of about USD180 million daily.
The science is clear. The escalating climate change knows no boundaries, and this is coupled with an increasingly degraded environment. Countries across Africa need to urgently address these dual challenges if we want to forestall similar disasters in future.
This is the logic behind the universal, global response to climate change that has been called for under the Paris Agreement. Sierra Leone, classified as the third most vulnerable country to climate change, stands to benefit from being part of this global collective action – and it is among the countries that have ratified the Paris Agreement, demonstrating its resolve to combat climate change. In fact, Africa as a whole has shown global leadership in responding to climate change.
The good news is that practical solutions have been successfully applied across Africa. In Rwanda’s Geshwati area, a land suitability and use map is informing policy decisions to relocate vulnerable communities from previously encroached natural environments and high-risk areas to safer habitation areas. Considering that agriculture is the backbone of these communities, this plan is also informing on ecosystems-based adaptation (EBA) agriculture techniques that the communities can safely engage in for their livelihoods without degrading the area. Simultaneously, the plan is guiding the restoration of previously degraded catchment areas using EBA techniques like agro-forestry and the planting of indigenous trees, among others, to stabilize soils and slopes and to regulate flood waters. This has eradicated landslides that were once a common phenomenon in the area.
A similar two-pronged strategy has been successfully applied to build resilience in Mozambique’s coastal communities that were highly vulnerable to coastal flooding. For example, an investment of USD120 per person to rehabilitate depleted mangroves and establish crab farming restored mangroves. These have become natural buffers against coastal flooding while simultaneously preventing future encroachment by providing alternative livelihood activities away from the mangroves. Read more