The new normal: Living at peace with nature

Nov 20, 2017

Participants in the cash-for-work project © Carolyn Williams-Gerdes UNDP/ Sierra Leone

“A prophet is not respected in his home,” says Tame Kamara, drawing on traditional wisdom.

Today, in Dwazark, UNDP-trained teams of community members are knee-deep in the stream that runs from the hills and between their homes, moving large rocks and removing rubbish.  They are also removing old shoes, mobile phones and bits of clothing that were swept away from victims of the floods and landslide that claimed hundreds of lives, just three months ago.

A resident of Dwazark, Kamara is aware that one of the most important challenges will be to secure lasting support from his community.  In addition to clearing the remnants of their recent tragedy, team members will be leaders in their communities.  Not only will they share technical skills, they will be advocates for change among their peers – altering numerous practices that have simply been accepted as “normal,” as far back as they can remember.


There is more than just one reason for the risk of disaster in Freetown.  There are, of course, natural factors.  Every year, Sierra Leone receives an average rainfall of 3,600 litres (the equivalent of about 18 bathtubs) per square metre.  Homes are situated on steep slopes, on top of extremely deeply weathered rocks, which are covered by a heavy, clay-like soil.  These conditions, alone, point to the potential for natural hazards.

But there are also manmade factors – informal settlements, occupying more and more of the land that used to be home to trees and other flora, unsustainable agricultural practices, and excessive charcoal consumption.  This causes deforestation and erode soil – which is particularly dangerous when soil is saturated with water.  In addition, homes and other structures are built into hills, cutting the weathered soil away vertically and removing the natural counter weight that would normally keep existing soil in place. 


Whether or not they are aware of it, people both affect, and are affected by, natural hazards.  In addition to living with the perpetual risks of flooding and landslide, they also stimulate them, and have to live with the on-going consequences of them. 

Drains between houses are frequently blocked – not only by soil and rock, but also by household and commercial waste.  At times when rain is most intense, these drains are often not wide enough to accommodate the accumulated volumes of water.  This increases its force so that the water begins to transport larger rocks. 

“Rocks can be as big as a Toyota Landcruiser and can weigh 50 tonnes,” explains Thorsten Kalnischkies, one of the UNDP Advisors, overseeing the project.  “Imagine a rock like that, travelling at the speed of 10km an hour, hitting houses and people.”

Some communities have responded by fortifying retention walls, which helps to keep water away from their own homes.  However, it also increases the amount and force of the water, which then spills into and floods other communities, further downhill. 

“Another problem is that water is contaminated by mud, human and animal faeces and other waste,” says Kallnischkies.  “Even moderate rain washes all of this into open drinking water wells.   So, an act as simple as fetching drinking water from your home well becomes a life-threatening risk.”


This complex, multi-faceted problem demands a complex, multi-faceted solution.  Getaneh Gebre, another UNDP Advisor insists, “You can’t reverse time.  You can’t bring things back to how they were 50 years ago.  And you can’t just fix one part of the problem, because the problem is a whole system of mutually-affective factors.”

Any effective response has to be comprehensive, realistic and sustainable over the long-term.

To this end, UNDP has engaged people affected by the recent tragedy – paying them, but also training them, providing them with tools and the ability to be leaders within their own communities, to teach others and establishing practices that are sustainable, reduce-risks and even generate income.

More than 500 individuals from flood- and mudslide-affected communities have been enlisted in this “cash-for-work” project.  Working in small teams, participants will put in a total of 8,670 person-workdays over the course of six weeks – altogether, about the same amount of work that 50 people would be able to achieve over the course of one year. One half men and one half women, every member of the team receives the same pay, regardless of gender or qualification.

Experienced in coping with disasters, international UNDP experts are providing on-the-job training to smaller groups of workers.  Of these, the most talented have been selected to train others; and this “train-the-trainers” system is now being applied, until all workers are trained. 


In communities like Dwazark and Firestone, some drains will be cleared of waste and rocks.  In other cases, where river banks are subject to erosion and may collapse in future, drains will be reconstructed.

In Kamayama/Malama, Dwazark and Firestone, participants will construct gabions – wire cages, filled with rocks and piled, one on top of the other – to protect banks from erosion, reduce the impact of flowing water, and prevent soil from falling into the river bed.   

In all of the communities, cement walls will be erected around drinking water wells to protect them from contamination during rainfalls and to improve community access to clean water.

As what may be the initiative with the greatest impact, straight, angular slopes are being cut into terraces and used for urban or peri-urban gardening, starting in Dwazark and Kamayama.  Cultivation of agriculture and compost will reduce the overall impact of rain on the soil and, by extension, reduce the erosion of slopes inside communities. 

Specifically, crops such as sweet potatoes, cassava and bananas will minimize the type of flooding that occurs when aquifer  ground is infiltrated by rain water and, holding soil tightly together, reduces the erosion that contributes to landslide. 

As a complement to this, household compost  will provide nutrients to crops; and because the organic material in compost is moisture-absorbent, it will absorb rain water, reducing the flow into rivers and streams.

Another initiative is the creation of “erosion gullies” – deep cuts into the soil water washes away precious soil.  According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, “generating three centimeters of top soil takes 1,000 years and, if current rates of degradation continue, all of the world's top soil could be gone within 60 years.”   Recognizing this very real threat to agriculture, communities can take action right now, instead of reacting only when there is nowhere left to plant crops.  This is precisely the meaning of sustainable development.

The work is not easy: hard physical labour, under a scorching west African sun. Nonetheless, participants – and the communities in which they work – are committed and there is a sense of pride among them.

“Next time you are looking for more people, pick me!” calls out a bystander to the Team Leader.


“People in the affected areas had already been working hard – building their lives, and caring for their communities.  In this respect, these initiatives are not entirely new,” explains Gebre.  “But now these same activities are being seen in a different context.  Now, it’s about understanding natural causes and effects, understanding the impacts of human action on the environment, and using that knowledge to affect positive outcomes.” 

Not only do agricultural activities reduce the risk of disaster, they can also feed families and become a source of income-generation. Composting also minimizes costs by diverting a significant proportion  of the municipal waste that would otherwise have to be removed and disposed of.  So it’s a holistic approach, understanding the impact of human activity within a broader, more complex system of causes and effects.

UNDP Advisors continue to visit all of the sites, providing further instruction and training, as required. 

Says Kallnischkies, “We have had meetings with village chiefs and the participants, explaining that UNDP cannot solve all the problems in all the communities.”

But what UNDP can do is raise awareness, provide training, complement the skills and methods being employed in the communities with its international experience and expertise.

He is frank but sincere: “We will leave, but we will leave behind better knowledge and insight, as well as the necessary tools and equipment. The communities will be able to reduce their own impact on disaster risk, increase their own resilience and better cope with future events.”

Cash-for-work activities are already underway in Dwazark.  Other teams will commence work this week, in Kamayama.

UNDP Around the world

You are at UNDP Sierra Leone 
Go to UNDP Global