If it’s not risk-informed, it’s not sustainable.

Life after the mudslide

Oct 3, 2017

Just more than a month after flooding and a mudslide killed hundreds and displaced thousands, many communities remain steadfast, in affected and high-risk areas around Freetown. 

Today, a small group of young men is hard at work, shoveling sand into bags and building a barrier in the narrow space between the recently-flooded river and the endless cluster of homes along its banks.

A man approaches them and asks, “Why did you choose to live here?”  Because, they explain, it was empty, very close to city center and because there is access to water.  It seemed a practical decision and it was only meant to be temporary.  But they grew comfortable, built networks, started businesses and, over time, it became their home. 

The man asks, “Aren’t you afraid the river will flood again?”  It might happen in five or ten years, they tell him, confidently.  But won’t happen again soon. 

This is an example of “zero-risk perception,” the feeling that “it won’t happen to me” or “it can’t happen again.”  It is a common human tendency to think that tragedies of such epic proportion cannot happen every day – that they can only happen, once in a lifetime. 

But in fact, they can happen anytime. 


The man with the questions is Dr. Muhi Usamah.  Dr. Usamah is a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Landslide Risk-Management Specialist. Having arrived in Sierra Leone, three weeks after the disaster, to provide support to Sierra Leone’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), he is one of a team of experts conducting assessments and analysis to inform the Government-commissioned Recovery and Risk Management Action Plan for Sierra Leone.  With academic backgrounds and extensive experience across a range of expertise areas, these specialists will propose solutions to immediate, medium, and long-term challenges; address both environmental and urban development issues; and enable national-planning that is evidence-based and risk-informed.

On this particular day, Dr. Usamah and his EPA counterparts are visiting communities along the disaster site.

Having moved upward, nearer to the source of the landslide, the team is graciously welcomed by those who remain close to the area where they last saw their loved ones.  Each has his or her story to tell.  These stories are difficult to hear and it is difficult not to fixate on the personal items that remain, half buried in mud and rubble: clothes, shoes, and children’s toys.

In the mountainous terrain where homes and families were consumed by heavy, wet mud, just weeks ago, other homes stand to each side in stark contrast, untouched and surrounded by greenery.  But where most of us see rocks and dirt, Dr. Usamah sees “exposed sub-surface geology”, “soil characteristics” and “weathering processes.” 

His work in Sierra Leone has been a two-step process.  The first component involved a joint UNDP/EPA analysis of the environmental causes of the mudslide, and the human activities that trigger them.  The second component is to produce a comprehensive set of recommendations for sustainable landslide risk management both in Freetown and in other landslide prone areas in Sierra Leone.



As more and more people relocate from rural to urban areas, one can observe massive landscape change around Freetown, as green areas are transformed into settlements.  Sierra Leone is undergoing rapid physical development.  Dr. Usamah cautions, “Development that is not risk-informed will not be sustainable.”  It was not only lives and homes that were destroyed on 14 August.  Many people lost their livelihoods and their entire life savings.  They are no longer experiencing the benefits of development and it will take time for them to recover the standard of living they had known. 

Development and disaster risk-reduction are not two separate issues. It’s not only about “responding” to disasters, but also about understanding their causes and integrating this knowledge into plans, so that risk is mitigated in the first place.


Risk-informed development also requires a coordinated approach, with responsible actors at all levels.  It should come from the top down, but also from the bottom up – from national-level planning to community-level action. 

At a national policy level, disaster risk-management could include the establishment and implementation of relevant building codes and by-laws, early warning systems, and contingency plans. In fact, many of the UNDP Expert’s recommendations relate to the need to establish policies and to ensure their strict implementation.  This is critical in making it clear which areas are safe or unsafe to live.

The type of risk-assessments that have been conducted by UNDP and the EPA could also inform local-level preparedness.  They could, for example inform emergency evacuation and contingency plans.

Communities are also well-positioned to advocate risk-awareness and their participation is critical.  The communities of Sierra Leone are resilient, strong, and close knit.  Trusted community leaders – youth leaders, religious leaders – must play a role in delivering important, life-saving messages.  It is time to abandon the idea that “nothing will happen” and recognize that “anything can happen” at any time. 

According to Dr. Usamah, “We know that there will be more floods, mudslides, and landslides in the future.  We just don’t know when.” The key is to raise awareness so that people are fully aware that they are living with risk and are able to make informed decisions.

View the photo essay on exposure here

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