Keeping an eye out for the big water

Jul 28, 2016

Sierra Leone has come to be extremely vulnerable to the impacts of global climate change, partly as a result of human activities on the environment.

In September 2015, Sierra Leone’s capital encountered its most devastating floods ever recorded, temporarily rendering almost 5,000 people homeless, damaging properties and causing substantial impacts on local livelihoods. It presently stands as the third most flood-prone country in the world.

The once thickly forested hill slopes of the Freetown Peninsula and western rural area, for example, have been hugely deforested. Many people consider the Freetown hills ideal to build homes because of its wonderful sea view, it is less crowded than the densely populated lower lying areas of the city.

To prepare for similar emergencies in the future, and protect especially those communities that are most vulnerable, the Disaster Management Department (DMD) of the Office of National Security (ONS) in alliance with the Sierra Leone Meteorological Department (SLMD) organised a three-day simulation exercise in Bumbuna, Tonkolili District.

Bumbuna, 4.5hrs away from the capital-Freetown, is home to the country’s biggest hydroelectric project. This northern town might be grossly affected by the effects of vegetation giving way to development, but its dam evacuates a maximum of 50MW of electricity and holds millions of gallons of water during the dries, which could double during the rains. Any accidental dam failure would mean a whole new world of doom for communities downstream.

Members from over 50 communities living upstream and downstream from the Bumbuna Dam, the largest dam in Sierra Leone, participated in local disaster preparedness and response exercises.

The exercise was supported by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), through a Global Environment Facility (GEF) financed project that focuses on strengthening climate information and early warning systems for resilient development and adaptation. 

DMD Director, Mr. John Vandy Rogers, said Bumbuna was selected because it houses a critical national infrastructure. The Bumbuna Dam is the country’s biggest hydroelectric facility, and the surrounding communities are vulnerable to disasters such as floods or dam failures – especially during the rainy season.

“We hope to help communities build partnerships that would prove effective in saving lives and properties, and preserve stability. Also with UNDP support, we have developed a Flood Preparedness Plan for Sierra Leone.” Mr. Rogers continued that disaster management is multi-disciplinary and cross-sectoral, and DMD has been working towards ensuring comprehensive preparedness for disasters, in collaboration with UN Agencies in the country.

An Emergency Action Unit (EAU) was created within the Bumbuna Watershed Management Authority (BWMA) to manage disaster issues at the downstream area of the dam, where water currents are normally high.

BWMA Team Leader, Hawa Kandeh, said the EAU forewarns of incoming excess water. Some people cultivate lands close to the running water because they believe it is well-irrigated, and several drowning accident have happened in the past. “We have field agents on bikes who visit the villages to give safety talks and monitor water levels, and alert them in cases of excess water released from the dam”.

Building on this exercise, the BWMA with support from DMD and UNDP will establish community-based early warning systems for the 40 most vulnerable downstream communities, so that they can respond timely when there is a flood alert and avert risks to their lives and livelihoods.

UNDP through its Energy, Environment and Natural Resource Management Cluster works in vulnerable communities to reduce the impacts of climate change and risks of natural and man-made disasters in Sierra Leone by reinforcing and supporting institutions and communities to properly prevent or manage natural disasters.

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