By Ibrahim SorieKoroma
Usually when it rains heavily in Freetown and other parts of the country just as we have seen in recent months, there is the tendency for flooding. And there is the risk of not only waterborne diseases like cholera but also water related diseases. As we all have seen, the continuous downpour of rain alone in July 2020 has resulted to some isolated cases of flooding in Freetown and other parts of the country. Persistent rain fall like this will not only lead to flooding and other disasters, but also a threat for waterborne diseases like cholera, typhoid and diarrhea. It is of no gainsaying that the poor sanitationinmost of our communities coupled with poor hygiene practicesand poor access to safe drinking water are compounded problems in the mix all together, which cannot be properly addressed with a linear approach, but with a biconcave lens- digging deep into the root causes with informed solutions.
Human activities to the environment, health emergencies and disasters:
It is of course glaring that human activities with the environment have rendered us vulnerable to natural disasters like flooding, mudslide to name but a few. Indeed, there is a nexus between human health and that of the environment. Unhealthy human activities to the environment have in most cases subjected us to responding to either health emergencies or natural disasters.
The 2012[update]cholera outbreak in Sierra Leone which claimed the lives of over392 people was an eye opener. It was the country’s largest outbreak of cholera since it was first reported in 1970 and the deadliest since the 1994–1995 cholera outbreaks. The outbreak had also affected Guinea, which shares a reservoir of cholera near the coast. This was the largest cholera outbreak in Africa in 2012.
It was triggered by heavy rainfall resulting to flooding in Sierra Leone and Guinea, combined with poor hygiene practices, unsafe water sources, and ineffective waste management system.
Crowded living conditions, poor sanitation and inadequate access to safe water are responsible for the higher rates of the outbreak in the Western Area including Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. Cholera is a water-borne disease which is spread by the consumption of water or food contaminated by the faeces of an infected person.
According to the Africa Review, nearly 60% of toilets in the country are pit toilets that easily drain directly into sources of drinking water and more than 30% of people defecate in the open.Only about 40% of people in Sierra Leone have access to a private or shared latrine, where approximately seven families typically share one toilet. It is even worst in slum communities, where sanitation is the lowest of health standers not to talk of safe water sources.
It is clear that the water and sanitation systems in the country were damaged after the civil war in Sierra Leone, and we are still struggling to have a proper water system fit for purpose, leaving approximately 43% of Sierra Leoneans without access to clean water.
The 2017 flash flood in Freetown which led to the tragic mud slid at Mount Sugar Loaf and the 2019 flash flooding in the metropolis of Freetown and other parts of the country still linger in the minds of Sierra Leoneans with memories that can teach us some remarkable lessons.
When this writer was growing up as a boy in the East of Freetown, I used to see the sloppy hills of the Metropolis in fascinating green scenery. Littlecouldone think at the time that many shanty and ill constructed houses could now form part of the awkward looks of the once beautiful sloppy hills of Freetown? This can also be true for other parts of the country.
I am not a geographer by background but if my rudimentary Geography can serve me well, the desperation of human settlement in hill tops and on sloppy hill-side and other places has led to what is known by geographers or environmentalists as soil erosion, resulting to huge mass of water chasing the sea level taking along everything on its way, even when people make shelters in water ways and flood prone areas, putting their lives at risk of diseases and loss of lives and property.
Now, we all can attest to the fact that urbanization has led to huge concentration of people in urban and growing cities, making them densely populated and most of these people live in shanty communities, hill tops, and slum communities which lack the most basic needed amenities like safe drinking water and proper sanitation which put them at risk of diseases like cholera, typhoid fever, hepatitis and water related diseases like malaria.
In such communities a compound of 5-6 households in most cases would use one hand-dug pit toilet which would be in a very bad shape of not meeting health standards. Some would not even boast of the basic hand-dug pit latrine and would have to defecate in the open and in a plastic bag and then throw in gutters or running water when it rains.
Now for communities like these which can be seen all over the country, the common practice is open defecation (ODF) which in itself poses serious health risk of diseases. Normally when it rains people defecate, empty their faeces/human excreta in gutters and water ways, forgetting that their actions are putting the lives of other people at risk of preventable diseases like cholera not knowing thatthey could contaminatewater sources like water wells, dams andstreams which people use to get safe drinking water on a regular bases; thereby putting them at risk for waterborne diseases like typhoid and cholera?
Water and sanitation structures:
As you have seen from the analysis on the issue of water and sanitation in this commentary, one would realize that, water and sanitation still remain a long-term challenge in the country, particularly in the urban slum communities, where people are at high risk of water borne diseases like cholera.
I would like to conclude with a quote from Journalist Pereira, who reported the 2012 cholera outbreak in Sierra Leone, which states that: “Until there is significant improvement in the water and sanitation infrastructure in the country, Sierra Leone will continue to be vulnerable to cholera outbreaks, especially in the rainy season”…he continues… “But even if cholera becomes endemic, there are many things in the area of proper water and sanitation system/structures that can be put in place to ensure that people don’t die from subsequent waterborne diseases like cholera.”
It is clear that successive governments have been trying to fix the long aged colonial styled water and sanitation structures in the country, but the government can’t do it all. So, there is need for concerted efforts in the form of public-private partnership, support from international and local NGOs and UN agencies backed with a community led development approach. This, I believe will heed dividend as we move forward in addressing issues around water and sanitation issuesand environmental health.
Please note that as at present, there are no reported cases of cholera in any part of the country. This article is for public education purposes. Stay safe and practice the required healthy behaviors as we strive to stop the infection of coronavirus in the country, but we must also make informed decisions/actions to prevent the occurrence of flooding which would otherwise put people’s lives at risk of water burn diseases like cholera, diarrhea, typhoid to name but a few.