Impact of the August 2017 Mudslide and Flooding Disaster in Freetown Sierra Leone on the Urban Water Supply System

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. DisasterSite-MKargbo_smEven 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)[1]. 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.

  1. Background
  2. 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[2] 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[3]. 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.

  3. Urban water systems and disaster risk in Freetown
  4.  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[1]. 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 [2]. 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.

    Water systems are generally considered as critical infrastructures (CI), because of the significant role they play in the livelihood of people, such as drinking, cleaning and maintaining the environment and ecosystems[1]. Therefore, Loss of water services imposes an immediate risk to human health and cascading impacts across other related systems that are dependent on water services such as health and social service. The photo 01 above, revealed the vulnerability of the Guma Valley Water Company (GVWC) supply system, which is located close to the portion where the flow started, this shows that location and human activities can increase the vulnerability of water systems.

    It was also recorded that, the estimated percentage share of damage and loss in the water and sanitation sector, as a result of the August 14th disaster is 8% as compared to 11% loss in health, 6% environmental impact, 10% social protection and 55% damage to housing infrastructure. The impact of the disaster to water supply is relatively significant in economic and social terms; this therefore calls for robust resilience modalities to be considered in the planning, design, Construction and maintenance of Urban Water Infrastructures.

    The Guma Valley Water Company (GVWC) is a state-owned utility responsible for water supply in Freetown. Reports have revealed that the system is grossly inadequate to provide water for its inhabitants[1]. The Infrastructure is very old (more than 50 years old), with inadequate system capacity to provide adequate water supply. For instance, the main Dam was designed to serve a population of about 300,000 (Three hundred thousand) to 500,000 (Five Hundred Thousand) people as opposed to the current situation where the same system is expected to serve about four to five times its designed population. As such, due to the low capacity of the system, together with difficulties in extending services to new households, most residents especially within the affected communities are not connected to the GVWC system. Instead, water is obtained from privately dug wells, community stand pipes and from water vendors, (push-carts and bowser water suppliers).

    A significant component of the GVWC system, comprising dams and treatment systems are located in areas that are characterized by uncontrolled urban sprawl, posing significant risk to the water infrastructure.

  5. Impact of the August 14 Disaster on the Urban Water Supply System in Freetown
  6. Flooding within the Guma Valley Water Company’s (GVWC) facility resulted in damage to power plants and pumps. Some sections of both the transmission and distribution pipelines were damaged by the sliding mud and boulders, together with some service connections to households. Cracks were also seen on the concrete raw water storage tank, which is believed to have been caused by the tremor from the mudslide. It was also noted that, significant volume of water leaked from the reservoir and broken pipe network during the disaster.

    The August 14th Disaster in Freetown, did not only affect the Regent, Kaningo, Kamaya and Lumley Communities, but also affected water supply to the International Military Training and Advisory Team Sierra Leone (IMATT) area, Hill station, Leicester and Gloucester Communities, which are out of the affected area. This shows that the water supply system components are geographically distributed with mains connecting reservoirs, treatment systems and communities at various locations. However, a system of such nature is vulnerable and critical, as disruption in one location can affect supply to some other locations.Sugarloaf-MKpenge_sm

    There were vivid evidences that suggested that the underground water system was polluted as dozens of corpses were buried under the rubble and flood waters essentially contaminated water wells and other underground water systems.

    Some of the reasons for the relatively high level of impact of the mudslide and flooding disaster are due to a relatively high level of rainfall intensity, mountainous topography, deforestation and largely uncontrolled urbanization. Most of the casualties were borne by people living in precarious settlements at the bottom of the mountain, slum dwellers along the waterways and closer to the sea at Lumley.

    It is also important to note that infrastructures, including water, remain vulnerable to various types of disasters. Currently, there is a significant number of people that are still living in high-risk disaster-prone areas, especially within the affected areas, and this number is substantially increasing.

  7. Restoration of water supply to affected Communities.
  8. Following the disaster, it was clear that a robust disaster response policy was not in place to address the emerging challenges. However, the GVWC’s Babadorie facility manager was proactive enough to have communicated the incident to the higher authorities within the institution and the decision by Management to shut the facility down temporarily was taken as an immediate measure; this adversely affected more than 1,000 (One Thousand) households who were immediately cut off supply. Subsequently, the utility resorted to bowser supply to affected residents.

    A Notable representative from GVWC reported that, the proactive response of the GVWC team, shortly after the disaster resulted in immediate restoration of water supply to affected communities. The distribution pipelines from the facility at Babadorie were quickly repaired and water supply was restored along the gravity line from Regent through Kamayama, Malama and Hill Station. Damaged service connections, pumps and the power plants that were affected by the flooding were immediately, cleaned, repaired and restored accordingly.

  9. Lesson Learnt
  10. The event affected multiple water supply locations. Due to the geospatial spread of water supply components, it was noted that the impact of a water system’s component in one locality, can affect the supply of water to some other locations. This implies that disaster preparedness measures should be considered in a holistic manner to essentially include all geographically dispersed components of a water supply system and not in isolation. The mudslide and similar disasters can be sudden and overwhelming; however preventive and mitigation measures can be put in place to ameliorate the impact. Some of the mains were merely exposed to road surfaces as most of the covering materials have been eroded away. Sufficiently buried water mains would have been a relatively good damage prevention measure. An early warning system is a chain of communication system that essentially raises the awareness of imminent danger and provides information for appropriate and timely action. However, in this context there was no early warning system to inform a proactive response. The extent to which the affected settlements were devastated during this disaster indicated that no effective town planning practice was upheld. The relevant governmental institutions such as; the Town planning department, the Environmental Protection Agency, the City Council, the Ministry of water resources, the Utilities and other relevant entities should work together to address urban sprawl and unplanned development. As a proactive response to the disaster, a respondent from water utility indicated that the affected water plants were shut down and they resorted to bowser water supply following the disaster to provide water to the affected communities. Better and more proactive measures can be taken during emergencies as opposed to bowser supply which is relatively very expensive and not effective. For example, a potential alternative to bowser supply would have been to supply water to affected communities using pipes from collapsible water tanks. To date, there is no disaster response policy for water utilities in Sierra Leone. That said, disaster Management and response policies should be developed for the water supply sector. Most of the pipe networks are not designed with due resilience considerations, as most of them are surface laid and not appropriate to withstand shocks. Finally, Resilient design of water systems should be mandatory, especially around disaster prone areas.


  11. Disaster Risk Reduction and Urban Water Supply infrastructure
  12. Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) is a systematic approach to identifying, assessing and reducing the risks of disaster. It aims to reduce socio-economic vulnerabilities to disaster as well as dealing with the environmental and other hazards that trigger them. DRR measures fall into the categories of prevention/mitigation and preparedness. With regards to Urban water infrastructure, there are disasters that can be prevented and those that cannot be prevented. It is also important to note that, in some cases, prevention of disasters can be handled by the Utility and in other cases the responsibility can be above the control of the Utility. For instance, in the case of the August 14th mudslide, which is mainly due to deforestation and uncontrolled development, it is obvious that GVWC might not be responsible for the control of urban development – however, the Utility can be directly responsible for protecting its infrastructure in several ways, such as making sure that mains are protected and adequately buried in the ground to prevent any direct physical impact. The Utility can also be involved in stakeholders’ engagement, relevant research on preventive measures such as; constructing a storm drainage system to minimize the impact of flooding. Interestingly, investing in preventive measure is not a common practice in developing countries, as there is usually considerable demand for limited financial resources for water supply services. However, it is worth noting that prevention can reduce the impact of disasters.

    Some useful mitigation measures can include but not limited to; reinforcement of structures so as to limit the damage from an imminent disaster. Preparedness measures should also be considered to include early warning systems and provision of resources for appropriate and prompt response to disasters.

  13. Conclusion
  14. The Mudslide and Flooding event in Freetown has opened up an opportunity for re-evaluating the current state of the urban water infrastructure in Freetown, trigger social mobilization, solidify the knowledge sharing platform from various sectors and spark novelty and innovation for resilience. The main GVWC water supply system that provides more than 95% of its water to consumers is located in the western rural district in Freetown. It is however important to consider the impending risk should there be any disaster that can potentially affect such system. One of such consideration is the need to have an appropriate mitigation plan and preventive measures in place. In essence, due consideration should be given to fragile or critical water infrastructure systems.The Urban Utility should not be the only player in Disaster Risk Reduction for water infrastructure in particular, but an integrated approach should be considered, incorporating all related stakeholders and ultimately a strong political will. Additionally, disaster mock trials within the urban water supply sector should be conducted to mimic or troubleshoot various disasters. To those who are well versed in environmental patterns, August 14th Disaster did not come as a surprise, as Freetown was also affected by major disaster event, such as the 2015-flooding. However, adequate mitigation measures have not been put in place to bolster the resilience of urban systems against disasters. Considering the spatial nature of a water supply infrastructure, which makes it prone to diverse disaster risk at various locations, as such, it is very important to intensify and improve the body of knowledge of urban water infrastructure risk and resilience in developing countries.


  15. Recommendations

It is very clear that Water-Infrastructure-Specific Disaster Risk Management and Disaster Risk Reduction policies should be developed and implemented to effectively enhance the resilience of urban water supply systems. The following recommendations are hereby proposed:

  1. Relevant regulatory policies should be enhanced to incorporate disaster risk management and resilience of urban water infrastructure.
  2. An emergency preparedness plan should be developed specifically for Urban Water Utilities, describing in detail the strategy and organization of dealing with specific hazardous events, and how to recover from the disastrous events.
  3. DRR should be institutionalized to ensure an effective structure for the implementation of Emergency preparedness plan.
  4. The capacity of the various personnel in the DRR team should be built and adequately equipped for effective response.
  5. Conduct regular simulation exercises for various types of disasters.
  6. Re – designing of fragile urban water infrastructure to reflect DRM considerations
  7. There should be dedicated structure and budget for DRM in the water and sanitation sector.
  8. Early warning systems should be setup.
  9. Regular risk assessment should be conducted for Urban water utilities.
  10. Mapping and modelling of related water supply risk in the country.
  11. Disaster risk reduction should be mainstreamed in the entire project cycle (assessment, planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation).

[1] IMC, World Wide. Sierra Leone: Improving access to safe water in Freetown.

[1] REIDMAN DAVID, No date.             Questioning            the           Criticality                of             Critical Infrastructure: A      case         Study                 Analysis. Can be viewed on-line at:

[1] 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

[2] Water Technology, Drinking water news and insight, Europeans Researchers Developed new tool to protect drinking water.

[1] 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. (

[2] Sierra Leone Flood and Landslide Situation report, No.2. 17 August 2017

[3] Sierra Leone: Landslide and Floods Situation update No. 5, 22 August 2017.

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