Experience gained taming West Africa's Ebola outbreak is helping Sierra Leone deal with its recent mudslide disaster, but urgent action is needed to prevent future catastrophes, experts say.
As more bodies are unearthed after the mid-August mountain collapse in Regent on the outskirts of the capital Freetown, thousands of people who lost their homes require emergency accommodation and longer-term help to recover, aid workers say.
"People are outside, still waiting for shelter, for proper housing - and meanwhile it’s still raining heavily in Freetown,” said Fatoumata Nafo-Traoré, Africa director at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), adding that affected families were "desperate”. "Seeing the community which is only just recovering from the Ebola outbreak that claimed 4,000 lives - and it’s the same community now losing thousands of people... is really heart-breaking,” she said.
The August 14 mudslide on Mount Sugar Loaf killed an estimated 500 people, while hundreds more are still missing, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Humanitarian workers and others are drawing on their experiences of dealing with the 2014-2016 Ebola crisis to respond to the mudslide disaster, Nafo-Traoré said.
More than 100 Sierra Leone Red Cross volunteers were on the frontline of the mudslide response, carrying out search and rescue operations. Many are the same people who gave community assistance in the Ebola outbreak, the IFRC said in a statement.
"They were trained in providing psychological support and promoting hygiene and sanitation,” said Nafo-Traoré - skills that are now being used to aid mudslide survivors.
After the Ebola outbreak, the IFRC helped set up warehouses with emergency stocks such as blankets and medical supplies that are "critical for any response”, said Nafo-Traoré, adding that financial systems are also in place to ensure accountability.
"All these things help people to respond on time,” she said.
But aid groups and environmentalists say steps must be taken now to prevent devastating and costly disasters in the future. Climate change likely played a role in the Sierra Leone mudslide as warmer air can hold more moisture, increasing rainfall - but human factors are also to blame, said Richard A. Matthew, professor of international and environmental politics at the University of California, Irvine.
"The area received three times its normal rainfall in July, creating a lot of mud in the hills,” he said by email. Mud and rain are "a deadly combination" in a hilly city where people build in risky areas. Mud flows fast, and being at least twice as heavy as water, it can overwhelm neighbourhoods "in a matter of minutes", he added.
Deforestation, alongside unplanned and unregulated construction, makes the problem worse, transforming a natural hazard into a flooding and mudslide disaster, he noted.
"People do have the opportunity to increase or reduce vulnerability and hence the damage suffered during an event,” he said. Lansana Gberie, an academic and journalist from Sierra Leone, urged the government to stop illegal construction and commission tree planting on deforested slopes, which are more vulnerable to slips. "Otherwise, these things will keep happening and the tragedy will be much worse,” he said.
Nafo-Traoré warned the Freetown disaster could happen elsewhere in Africa, as seen with a recent landslide in the Democratic Republic of Congo that killed at least 200 people.
"The (Sierra Leone) government is clear that we need to really do more on recovery and plan for long-term solutions,” she said.
"Good information (and) good mapping are critical," she said, adding that leadership and coordination are also key. Developing plans for safer housing, preventing water-borne diseases and installing a functional early warning system are other important steps to make communities more resilient to shocks, she said.
Since the Ebola outbreak, the Sierra Leone government has strengthened its efforts to reduce the risk of disasters and manage them better if they do occur, said Sunil Saigal, the U.N. resident coordinator in Freetown.
"I think the lesson learnt is that you need strong coordination - you need someone who has an overview who can gather the threads, and... make sure the assistance gets out to where it is needed,” he said.
Data management - the ability to quickly obtain a sense of the scope of the disaster, how many people affected and what their needs are - is also "crucial”, said Saigal.
Professor Matthew said satellite imagery, drones and locally gathered data and knowledge can help with pulling together relevant information fast, as well as producing high-resolution models of flood and mudslide risk.
"In a place like Freetown, inexpensive flood-risk mapping co-developed with the community could be very helpful,” he said. Floods "could be the single most expensive hazard facing humanity this century", he warned. "So we have to focus on accurate, relevant and clear decision-support tools that are cloud-based and accessible to everyone." - Thomson Reuters Foundation