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Sierra Leone capital confronts water crisis

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Half of the year in Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown, residence worry about torrential rains.

It is a problem faced by nearly everyone in the rundown city of 1,5 million, built at the foot of mountains rising out of the ocean on Africa’s western coast.

One of the residents, Iyatunde Kamara said “Water has always been a struggle,” Kamara, like her neighbours, has no plumbing and fetches water from a stream.

A mudslide in 2017 killed more than 1000 people and left thousands without homes, during rainy season every year, deadly floods threaten the safety of Freetown residents.

Sierra Leone mudslide survivors live in fear of recurrent disasters. Disasters are largely blamed on rapid urbanization that’s driving residents to claim land and build new homes, experts say

But that is not the only thing worrying people in Sierra Leone, the diminishing water reserves are also worrying officials and aid workers.

Freetown’s water comes from reservoirs in the mountains, surrounded by forest. But as trees are cut to make room for construction, rain is draining off the hillsides rather than seeping through their roots into the soil and streams.

“Most of the water collected should be feeding into the dam, but for now, it flows out of the area because of deforestation,” said minister of water Jonathan Tengbe.

“The dam itself is under threat at the moment, and there is a massive need for us to protect the watershed,” said Tengbe referring to the Guma Dam, the biggest in the former British colony

Freetown plans to set up a water fund in the next year that would pool investment for projects to improve water security, such as planting trees, following in the footsteps of Nairobi in Kenya and Cape Town in South Africa.

But the challenges are massive as the crowded city grows, its proximity to the coast leaving it nowhere to expand but towards the forest.

Water is such a scarce commodity in the capital that girls trade sex for access to a tap to fill their buckets, this is referred to as “water for water”

“We have a lot of girls impregnated because of this water business,” said the head of civil society group the Federation of Urban and Rural Poor (Fedurp), Yirah Conteh.

Freetown’s water treatment plant and pipe systems were built in the 1960s for a city about one-third the current size. 

Some people have access to water three times a week while others roam the streets looking for a broken pipe where they can get a trickle of water 

“It is very, very serious,” said Conteh. “If the communities had water, we could be free from a lot of disease.” Children are sent to stand in line in the morning, and often miss school while waiting for their turn at water points, he added.

Girls also skip school when menstruating because they have no water to wash, said minister Tengbe, estimating that 50% of the city’s health problems could be solved by more sustained water supply. The issue goes beyond deforestation, but in some places, its impact can be seen.

In Tower Hill neighbourhood, people get water from a natural spring. The area was deforested years ago, but more recently, a college replanted trees.

“At first, we didn’t have water when they chopped down all the trees. This was dry,” said local resident Fuaid Samura.

While halting deforestation is a necessary step, it will not be enough to fix Freetown’s water shortage, officials said. The city’s population is expected to reach two million people in a few years, said Tengbe.

The capacity of the Guma Dam, about 80 000 cubic metres per day, is little more than a quarter of what Tengbe estimated is needed to provide a reliable water supply for the city.

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