ByMichael Mohamed Kargbo
Head of Water Division at the Sierra Leone Electricity and Water Regulatory Commission (SLEWRC)
On the 14th of August, 2017, a mudslide and flooding disaster devastated some parts of Freetown, where significant number of people were killed and eventually disrupted the Urban water supply system in several communities. This event further underscored that disaster risk is likely to increase due to increase in population growth rate, climate change, unplanned development, deforestation, etc. unless efforts are made to invest in disaster risk management and resilience. Even though disaster risk might not be completely eliminated, however, it can be minimised considerably, especially to prevent the ultimate collapse of fragile and critical infrastructures such as urban water supply systems. It is however apparent that little is known about disaster risk reduction and resilience for Urban water supply systems, especially in Africa. This paper reveals the impact of the August 14th disaster on the urban water supply system and highlights the importance of resilience thinking in urban water supply systems. It is also important to note that this piece of work was essentially informed by empirical evidences, desk studies and interviews with key individuals from relevant institutions.
There is a rising trend, severity and frequency of natural hazards which will increase in the coming years due to, high population growth rate, urbanization, climate change and poverty (UNICEF, 2011). Urban Infrastructure is a fragile component of an urban system, as the integrity of our livelihood and survival is directly affected by its capacity, status and mode of operation. Some Infrastructures are termed critical because of their importance, especially the critical role they play towards human survival and enhancement of a sustainable environment.
The resilience of critical infrastructure during and after natural or manmade disaster is of utmost importance for the sustenance of a nation. Critical Infrastructures, such as water should be effectively insulated against all forms of disasters, whether manmade or natural. It is also important to note that, apart from the impact of imminent disasters on water systems, other factors that can potentially increase the vulnerability of water infrastructures includes; aging, poor management, weak institutional arrangement, weak legislative structure and poor operation and maintenance practices.
During and after a disaster, there is likelihood for a significant number of lives to be lost, and infrastructure will collapse as was evident in the mudslide and flooding in Freetown in August of 2017. Some of the systems affected by the mudslide and flooding include: roads and bridges, houses, the environment, electricity, water and sanitation and even social systems.
The water supply system should be given much priority in urban settings as it constitutes a lifeline support infrastructure that requires immediate remedy and restoration following a disaster outbreak. Typically, there are various components of a water infrastructure that can be affected as a result of disaster, depending on the location of the infrastructure, type of infrastructure (tap system, water well, etc), method and quality of construction and infrastructure resiliency measures considered in the entire infrastructure’s lifecycle (Planning, design and operation and maintenance). Where there are no alternative coping mechanisms, when disaster strikes and water supply systems are disrupted, it will result to serious health problems, exacerbated by the need to rehydrate by drinking unhygienic water. The consequence is often the spread of water borne diseases and death in a very short period of time. Therefore, it is important to consider the fragility of water infrastructure and establish and implement appropriate resilience measures.
This paper mainly discusses the impact of the mudslide and flooding event in Freetown on the 14th of August, 2017, on the urban water system and the need for bolstering the resilience of urban water systems against possible disasters.
Over 1,000 (One Thousand) people were estimated to have died as a result of the mudslide and flooding events that occurred on the 14th of August 2017 in Freetown. In the wake of the disaster, it was apparent that neither the people of Greater Freetown, nor the Government or development partners were adequately prepared for a disaster of such magnitude. In this context, where a relatively limited number of people living within the affected areas are connected to the urban water system, one may think that damage to the urban water system might not be detrimental to most of the population, alas, even unconnected households can be affected, especially during flooding disasters. During the said disaster, consumers that were connected to the urban water system and those that were not, were affected in various ways. To say the least, those that were not connected to the urban water supply system were somehow affected by flooding and the supply to those that are connected within the locality and beyond were immediately cut-off by the utility due to technical difficulties at the treatment plant and distribution system.
Following considerable investigations and discussions among local and international organizations, it was revealed that the mudslide was triggered by heavy rains washing down part of an unstable slope of mount Sugarloaf, in the mountainous Regent village in Freetown. It was also noted that significant part of the entire drainage structure was eroded all the way downstream to the Atlantic Ocean, some 10.9 Kilometres from Regent. Vegetation, boulders and soil particles were washed down, destroying lives and properties in its path, along the entire affected area. It was further revealed by the Office of National Security (ONS) that, over 5,905 (Five thousand nine-hundred and five) people were affected by the disaster. The water supply system and other services, such as roads and bridges, buildings and other social systems were badly hit.
In the wake of the disaster, a number of humanitarian and related institutions (Local and International), led by the Office of National Security (ONS) rushed to the affected area to save lives, evacuated survivors to safety and provided immediate essential services such as food, water and sanitation to the affected communities.
- Urban water systems and disaster risk in Freetown
In a publication by UNICEF, it is noted that, the impact of disasters similar to the mudslide in Freetown is more impactful to developing countries than economically developed countries. In developed nations of the world, there are relatively better resilience measures for effective protection of water infrastructures. For instance, researchers in Europe are working on more advanced tools that allows utilities to implement countermeasures in an emergency situation . Africa is yet to measure up with advancement in disaster management systems. For instance, in Sierra Leone, the integrity of the urban water supply infrastructure was put to test during the August-14 mudslide and flooding disaster in Freetown which devastated the water supply infrastructure within the affected areas. Generally, it is safe to say that the water supply infrastructure is vulnerable and the imminent disaster risk can be attributed to lack of adequate disaster preparedness considerations, inadequate disaster resilience consideration, poor quality and design of infrastructure, and relatively poor operation and maintenance practices
 UNICEF, 2011, Disaster Risk reduction and water, sanitation and hygiene – Comprehensive guidance. Published by the Global WASH Cluster.Global WASH Cluster, UNICEF New York,
3 UN Plaza, New York, NY 10017, USA.
Can be viewed on-line at
 Water Technology, Drinking water news and insight, Europeans Researchers Developed new tool to protect drinking water. https://www.watertechonline.com/european-researchers-develop-new-tools-to-protect-drinking-water/
 UNICEF, 2011, Disaster Risk reduction and water, sanitation and hygiene – Comprehensive guidance. Published by the Global WASH Cluster.Global WASH Cluster, UNICEF New York, 3 UN Plaza, New York, NY 10017, USA. (https://cfpub.epa.gov/si/si_public_file_download.cfm?p_download_id=521634).
 Sierra Leone Flood and Landslide Situation report, No.2. 17 August 2017
 Sierra Leone: Landslide and Floods Situation update No. 5, 22 August 2017.