Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr
Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr: mayor of Freetown © Riccardo Savi/Getty Images

Across West Africa, the damage wrought by the rainy season increases every year.

In Nigeria, officials blame a lethal combination of heavier rainfall caused by climate change and poor planning for floods last month that killed 600 people and displaced more than a million.

In Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, the effects of climate change are aggravated by rampant and unplanned development. Deforested hillsides and clogged-up waterways suffer regular mudslides and floods.

Slum dwellings — often erected on land reclaimed from the sea and built without permits using cheap materials such as corrugated metal sheets — offer Freetonians scant protection from higher temperatures, stronger storms, and rising sea levels. Climate change is a financial burden, too: Sierra Leone estimates it will need to spend $90mn a year on adaptation or about 2.3 per cent of its GDP.

A woman walks along a sewage canal inside Freetown in April © John Wessels/AFP via Getty Images

But Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, the city’s mayor since 2018, is determined to lead the way in climate mitigation by reforesting the hills around the capital and calling for an overhaul of land planning laws.

“We are facing disaster after disaster,” says Aki-Sawyerr. “There is a significant interface between climate-related events and how we build, where we build, and what we build.”

Heavy rainfall hit Sierra Leone between August and September, causing flash floods and mudslides that destroyed thousands of homes in Freetown. “We need to move people out of areas that are literally disaster-prone,” she says.

Aki-Sawyerr is calling for the ministry of lands to “engage” in planning, so that the system can become an “effective urban management tool” that stops buildings being erected without permission or on sites that harm the environment.

“I’m not asking to be in charge of giving out land [but] people need an idea of what can be built,” she says. As Aki-Sawyerr puts it, Freetown’s challenge “is exacerbated by the fact that construction happens anywhere and everywhere”.

The mayor says there are now 74 unauthorised settlements or slums in the city whose ad hoc development is typical of fast-growing African cities.

Migrants from rural areas where some crops now struggle to grow flock to these areas. This has fuelled Freetown’s “exponential growth in the last 20 years” to between 1.2mn and 1.5mn, Aki-Sawyerr points out. “That growth has not been planned, it has been done without any sort of environmental considerations, so there’s adaptation that needs to be done.”

The slums typify the challenge. Mud and silt accumulate with waste in waterways, shacks are built over and sometimes within culverts too; when the rain comes there is nowhere for the water to go.

As a member of the former president’s Ebola recovery team, the mayor’s decision to run for office was partly based on a lack of action over the continued deforestation — even after the August 2017 mudslides that resulted in the deaths of 1,000 people.

Under Aki-Sawyerr, Freetown has embarked on an innovative tree planting programme to increase the capital’s vegetation cover by 50 per cent. Set up with funding from the World Bank and the Global Environment Facility, the #FreetownTheTreetown campaign connects nurseries with workers who plant trees and record their growth and the overall increase in canopy cover, via an app. More than 550 jobs have been created under the scheme, which covers both municipal and private land. Reflecting the wider planning problems, Aki-Sawyerr says there have been some tree losses but “the monitors work hard with communities to protect them and the survival rates have been high”.

The target of planting 1mn trees should be achieved by October next year. She hopes the tree planting programme will be the model for urban leaders across the world in adding green lungs to cities.

While Freetown is embracing reforestation and aiming to protect citizens from consistently hotter temperatures — last year the capital was one of three cities to appoint a chief heat officer — establishing a functional planning regime is a bigger challenge. Aki-Sawyerr says the cost is manageable but “the obstacle to bringing in an environmentally sensitive building permits regime is political will”.

“A lack of urban planning must be addressed if mitigation efforts are to be anything more than papering over the cracks,” says Jamie Hitchen, an analyst at the UK-based African Cities Research Consortium.

The mayor belongs to the opposition All People’s Congress (APC) and has often clashed with the ruling Sierra Leone People’s party. Dozens died in anti-government protests over the rising cost of living in August. As Sierra Leone prepares for an election next June, President Julius Maada Bio accused Aki-Sawyerr’s APC of stoking the unrest.

The country is on a UN list of least developed nations considered highly vulnerable to economic and environmental shocks, which makes it eligible for enhanced support. But Aki-Sawyerr is frustrated by the lack of aid.

She says that achieving progress “can only be done if you have got the money to do it” — and the task has become harder as international assistance dries up and more governments seek to protect their populations from the cost of living crisis.

“Support for LDCs and developing countries has been central to the COP debates but they urgently need a lot of support both financially and from other means such as technology transfer, and capacity sharing initiatives,” said Emmanuel Osuteye, a lecturer on urbanisation and sustainable development at University College London.

“Climate change is a global issue but causes local pain,” Aki-Sawyerr told a Gates Foundation conference of global leaders in New York in September. “Communities cannot do it on their own. They need help in the form of investment and sponsorship.”

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