Sierra Leone is highly exposed to a variety of climate and disaster risks. This exposure has complicated or hindered its recovery from events such as a decade-long civil war; a severe economic downturn, which impacted the country’s ability to export ore-a primary export-and sharply contracted its economy; and an outbreak of the Ebola virus. The country’s capacities to prepare for and respond to disasters have remained severely constrained by a lack of resources and have not kept pace with the increasing frequency of disasters. Furthermore, growing urbanization has led to rising numbers of people moving to urban centers. Expanding informal neighborhoods, which house over 30 percent of Freetown households, often sit in floodplains and have little access to public services and basic utilities.

The consequences of rapid unplanned urban expansion have been devastating. On August 14, 2017, three days of heavy rains and flooding triggered the partial collapse of Sugar Loaf Mountain, which overlooks Freetown. The resulting mudslide devastated downstream neighborhoods, causing the deaths of 1,141 people as well as the widespread destruction of schools, health facilities, and roads. A rapid Damage and Loss Assessment (DaLA), carried out after the landslide with support from the World Bank in partnership with the United Nations, estimated the total economic value of damages at over $31.65 million. 

The DaLA, which was requested by the government of Sierra Leone, laid out a series of recommendations to ultimately strengthen the country’s long-term resilience against future natural hazards and enduring risks. Based on these recommendations, the government established a framework that would strengthen its capacities and provide new resources for disaster risk management (DRM) institutions.

GFDRR was instrumental in mobilizing trust fund resources to produce high-quality technical assistance products to the government of Sierra Leone, including a series of multihazard review and risk assessments, which provide a detailed overview of disaster hazards in the cities of Freetown, Makeni, and Bo. These assessments also consider a range of DRM options that can save lives and reduce economic losses caused by flooding and other hazards.

These outputs were delivered in the context of the World Bank–funded Freetown Emergency Recovery Project and had positive impacts on its implementation, especially with regard to the establishment of Sierra Leone’s new National Disaster Risk Management Agency (NDMA).

The new NDMA was inaugurated in 2020, informed by technical assistance from GFDRR to support institutional strengthening. GFDRR technical assistance also helped informed the design of the Resilient Urban Sierra Leone Project which prioritized the identification of neighborhoods to upgrade as well as priority areas for tree-planting activities across the city to increase slope stability and reduce flood risk. Ongoing technical assistance is being delivered to enhance early warning systems and emergency preparedness and response drills. In addition, a Building Regulation and Capacity Assessment is ongoing; this will inform the design of a digital building permit system platform and update the building code.

Sierra Leone’s dedication to addressing long-term resilience in the aftermath of the landslide has greatly improved the quality of the resources the disposal of the government’s disaster response apparatus. Other developments concurred with the inauguration of the NDMA, including the update of the country’s National Disaster Risk Management Policy to better adapt the NDMA to changing ground conditions and flexible institutional arrangements, providing expertise in the areas of emergency preparedness and response, as well as early warning and hydromet systems.

Lessons Learned

Sierra Leone has demonstrated the transformational impact that emphasis on long-term resilience can have, as well as the importance of adopting a culture of resilience and preparedness in government planning. The process of coordinating these efforts across government institutions has made it much easier to address the cross-cutting issues that contributed to the landslide, such as the impact of rapid urban growth on increased disaster risks. The government has already begun to focus on these issues through new technical assistance requests, including a new initiative funded by GFDRR that aims to strengthen the understanding of legal and regulatory frameworks applied for built environment and land use planning and permitting.