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Sierra Leone-Democratic Republic of Congo

Floods in DRC, Sierra Leone linked to climate change

A man helps a woman cross a log bridge after the flash flood washed away a concrete bridge at Pentagon, in Freetown August 18, 2017
A man helps a woman cross a log bridge after the flash flood washed away a concrete bridge at Pentagon, in Freetown August 18, 2017 REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

Deadly floods in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sierra Leone have raised questions about Africa's ability to adapt to climate change. Both landslides occured after torrential rains, creating major challenges for town and country planners.

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There were two disastorous floods in the region in the space of a week.The sites of the two landslides are 5000 kilometres apart.

One flood swept over a fishing village on the banks of lake Albert in the Democratic Republic of Congo, last Wednesday.

The other, two days earlier, occurred in the bustling Sierra Leonean capital Freetown.

However, they are not unique. Flooding is a regular occurance in the region.

In September 2015, flooding killed at least ten people and rendered several thousand homeless in Freetown.

In DRC, a mudslide in the eastern village of Kibiriga, killed 19 people in 2010. Fifty more people were killed eight years earlier when a wave of rocks hit the eastern town of Uvira.

Pointing finger at climate change

"Here in DRC we know that it is a problem of climate change," Trinto Mugangu, an advisor to Congo's Environment ministry, told RFI, in reference to the country's latest tragedy where at least 140 people are feared dead.

"The climate has become erratic. And we now have to know how to cope with this especially for hilly terrain such as in Ituri province."

The terrain where the landslide occurred was on a steep mountain slope in the northeast village of Tora. Part of the mountain collapsed, engulfing a fishing camp after heavy rains.

"The rain this year started earlier than usual," explains Mugangu.

Two months early, in fact.

"People were farming on this steep terrain and with the heavy rains that came early, that caused the land to slide," he says.

Land encroachment

Large-scale deforestation, driven by growing demands for land, has affected rainfall patterns, increasing the risk of flooding.

These same risks and ultimate fallout also underpin the catastrophe that's left at least 400 people dead in Sierra Leone.

"People--rich and poor--have been building further and further into the mountain areas encroaching on the protected Peninsular Forest" Jamie Hitchen, a researcher at the Africa Research Institute in London told RFI.

Soil erosion is just one of the causes of the latest flooding. No longer afforded protection by a canopy of trees, exposed soil is being carried off the hills and down into the city during heavy rainfalls.

"Unfortunately we are in the same place as we were in 2015,"  Hitchen says, whose institute carried out a flood-assessment report after the 2015 floods.

"The risk of further flooding and disease from stagnant water remains."

Cleaning up the catastrophe

The same is true in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Clean-up operations are under way in Ituri province to try and disinfect the flooded areas.

"The stench is growing and there is a risk that it could contaminate people living by the lake," Ndiya Amsini, the Provincial Minister for Fisheries and Agriculture told RFI.

"The situation is catastrophic. At our level, we are now faced with a serious challenge of assisting more than 245 children who have been made orphans," he says.

Asked what authorities  are doing to prevent another disaster from happening, the minister replied the task was proving difficult.

"People don't want to move because they want to carry on fishing. It's their livelihood."

Relocating inhabitants

In Freetown, the relocation of inhabitants has provided a different challenge of its own.

"The government's approach has been to use forced evictions whenever there’s been flooding," highlights Jamie Hitchen.

"It's tried to stop people from moving back into the flood-prone areas but that fails."

This time too, authorities in Sierra Leone are mulling plans to relocate survivors, and officials in Ituri province told RFI they're in talks to resettle locals elsewhere.

But these new locations must be near economic and social activity to ensure that people can make a living, warns Hitchen.

Otherwise locals will go back and build in flood-prone areas again. The challenge facing urban and country planners is not only to find a formula that is flood-proof, but financially viable as well.

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