A lack of regulation and insufficient consideration for minimum standards means millions of people are living in dangerously vulnerable homes.
Floods and mudslides that left more than 400 dead and over 3,000 homeless are believed to have been man-made and could have been avoided, according to leading environmentalists.
President Ernest Bai Koroma called on Sierra Leoneans to “come together” in a televised address on August 14th, appealing to a country still recovering from the catastrophic effects of a deadly Ebola outbreak.
Torrential rains lasting more than 20 hours led to collapse of a hillside in Regent, a mountainous town about 24km east of the capital Freetown, submerging houses and sweeping away others.
Freetown, an overcrowded coastal city of 1.2m, is hit each year by flooding during several months of rain that destroys makeshift settlements and raises the risk of waterborne diseases.
Deputy Information Minister Cornelius Deveaux, quoted by The East African, termed the incident “a tragedy unprecedented in the history of the country.”
The disaster has raised questions about deforestation, urban planning and disaster preparedness in the West African nation, said the Thomson Reuters Foundation, which asked aid organisations and researchers what lessons can be learnt to avert such crises in the future.
The major cause of mudslides and flooding is the chaotic development caused by the rapid urbanisation of Freetown, according to Joseph McCarthy, Co-Director of the Sierra Leone Urban Research Centre (SLURC).
Deforestation has become the order of the day with people grabbing any available land for housing, since land is very limited and hard to access, especially for the poor and middle-income groups. This is exacerbated by the fact that town planning is almost non-existent.
Any endeavour to avoid a reoccurrence should include more than just settlement relocation, he said. It should be about understanding what forces people to live in risky areas, as well as factors as such as population growth, land availability and the capacity of government to control urban development.
A resident looks out over Freetown – CC 2015
Joseph Randall, executive director of Green Scenery, an NGO working in Sierra Leone, told Deutsche Welle on August 18th that the Sugar Loaf, one of the highest mountains in Freetown, has seen a lot of activity in terms of removing the forest cover and constructing houses on soil, which becomes easily saturated with water and can cleave off during heavy rains.
While the agricultural ministry advises against constructing houses in disaster-prone areas, land ministry officials insist that they own the land and have a responsibility to ensure that it is made available.
Organisations such as Welthungerhilfe and The Environmental Forum for Action (ENFORAC) have worked on demarcating the forest area in Freetown to ensure that no construction takes place beyond certain points, but this has been met with resistance from communities.
The government has an annual tree-planting drive, but people simply go back to those areas and burn down the trees in order to repossess the land, Randall said.
Public education and promoting safer construction practices is also vital as climate change makes the annual heavy rains even more severe, said Idalia Amaya of Catholic Relief Services.
“We should never have to wake up in the morning and find the bodies of schoolchildren buried in the mud because their homes were in a precarious place,” she said.
Hundreds queued on August 16th after the government summoned families to the morgue in Freetown and said all unidentified bodies would be buried over the coming days amid fears of disease outbreaks from corpses that have lain in the heat.
“I heard heavy rain all night, and at around 5:30am, I felt the ground shaking,” Jalloh, who lost 17 family members including her son, told Al Jazeera. “Even as I stand here now, I do not have a place to sleep. We have no food, no clothes, nothing at all.”
Adele Fox, national health coordinator for Sierra Leone at the charity Concern Worldwide, said the search for bodies continued, but the survivors were facing difficult conditions.
The prevailing sentiment among those in the disaster areas had shifted from shock and grief to anger at what is an annual problem in Freetown, she said, though never before on this scale.
On August 16th, at least 200 people were killed in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo after a landslide swept through a fishing village on the banks of Lake Albert in Ituri province.