Sierra Leone | June 5 is gone. Next year's World Environment Day has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin

 "Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin." - Mother Teresa 

In his presidential address at the state opening of parliament, President Ernest Koroma pledged to continue with serious efforts to promote realization of the Millennium Development Goal of ensuring environmental sustainability.  Sierra Leone is putting in place policies and practices but have they gone far enough?  Sewa News asked Environmentalist Sheikh Bomboli Tunis for comment.

 "My Government will continue with serious efforts to promote the realization of the Millennium Development Goal of ensuring environmental sustainability.  We will work with all the municipalities to divide cities into several zones and quadrants and institute effective waste management systems. Our administration will use Garbage Disposals as a Revenue Source by encouraging the use of landfill sites to extract methane gas which will be used as another source of energy.  This particular intervention will provide employment opportunities for the youth. We will provide necessary support to our forest rangers to actively patrol and protect our forests. We will collaborate with civil society groups, non-governmental organizations, community-based organizations, local television, local radio and print media to promote awareness raising programs on the environment.  We will enforce all statutes contained in the laws of Sierra Leone designed to protect the environment. We will also enhance early warning and response systems for disaster management. My Government will continue to promote policies and programs for the prudent management of our forest resources with stronger emphasis on production and protection. A ban will be placed on the export of round logs in favor of setting up processing facilities to add value before export and to also provide job opportunities for our youth." --President Koroma at the State Opening of Parliament 

Sewa News:  What’s the state of Sierra Leone’s environment?

Sheikh Tunis: I am going to give you a zipped response, well, compressed, since the topic is a diverse one.  Usually when we talk about the environment, first thing that comes to mind in the United States of America (U.S.A.) is climate change.

In Sierra Leone, it is deforestation. However, deforestation is only the tip of the iceberg for environmental degradation going on in Sierra Leone. Population growth or urbanization and its encroachment―building in areas such as floodplains, valleys, and hilltops are an immediate and present danger to life and property.  Generally, serious factors in the degradation of the environment in Sierra Leone are uncontrolled diamond mines, iron ore mining, bulldozing granite stones, and sand mining, and agriculture, importation of electronic waste, very old used cars, and goods at the end of their useful life span.

The pace of new constructions, destruction and deforestation going on in Freetown is scary, frightening and needs urgent response; without which the city is [in danger of being] "under mud and rocks" bound, and lives and properties will be lost.

I know this is a bold and daring prediction, but I don't see otherwise if action is not taken. The removal of natural floodplains along river banks for human settlement is dangerous and will lead to disastrous floods.  Let me explain. Naturally, a river creates a wider bed for itself. Without any human intervention, even extreme amounts of floodwater flow off onto the areas along the banks. Unfortunately, changes in the natural condition leave little or no room for outflow. Let us remember that the world is experiencing rising sea levels therefore rivers need their natural buffers to cope with out flow.

Take the case of Lumley beach. Mangrove swamps that suck up overflow are being removed, encroached and replaced with restaurants, hotels, etc.  Are preventive or flood barriers being put in place? Ask the U.S.A. about Hurricane Katrina and the fallen dyke. Any major rise in sea level and heavy rain is a possible disaster. Imagine deforestation and erosion from uphill due to the cutting down of trees and clearing of vegetation and what is happening along the shoreline.

Last few years, Bonthe and other provincial towns have experienced serious flooding all of which can be attributed to erosion due to deforestation. Development means growth and improvement, but the problem with current construction and development in Sierra Leone is it disorganization, haphazardness and disregard for law and the environment.  Construction in sensitive areas using poor engineering is dangerous; government should stop it.  Almost every district has some amount of degradation and deforestation. What is going on is an assault on the ecosystem.

We have heard from the Executive Director of the Environmental Agency. Today, we are cutting down old and young trees to provide cooking energy, heating, lighting, food preservation and many more for our basic needs. Women's time burden in accessing energy is a hindrance to their health, education, financial and social wellbeing. Cutting of trees has negative environmental effects -climate change, global warming, desertification and limited water resources. We therefore need to collectively address this challenge. That is why I am truly looking forward to some of the interventions that women in the MRU will propose on this issue. -- President Koroma's Keynote Speech on Women's Empowerment through Access to Energy at the Mano River Union Conference on Energy and Gender.

Sheikh Tunis: As alluded earlier, major problems facing Sierra Leone are deforestation, degradation, loss of soil fertility, and loss of biodiversity, air and water pollution. These issues if not fully understood and incorporated in national policy will lead to disaster. Deforestation remains the worst since its impacts include or can lead to other effects. I will say deforestation has the triple evil environmental effect: degradation, erosion and loss of biodiversity.

Deforestation is the removal of trees (for any reason) clearing vegetation for agriculture or expanding human settlement (be it housing or making of roads etc.). Sierra Leone continues to lose forested land area from mining, slash and burn, and now industrial agriculture. It is estimated that Sierra Leone has lost over 95 percent of its forest in the past fifty years. Today there is more pressure on the land than ever.

Irresponsible diamond mining continues to cause deforestation soil and erosion.  Diamond miners, both large and small scale, clear land and remove soil cover,  re-route rivers and construct dams to expose riverbeds for mining which has a disastrous effects on plant, fish and wildlife. The country is inundated with abandoned mining pits. The environmental effect of African Minerals, London Mining, Addax etc.  are yet to be fully understood.

I don’t think the environmental assessments are being honestly assessed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) nor is the agency monitoring the activities of mining and agriculture companies ―the biggest environment threats. I expect the EPA to engage the alluvial small scale miners and collaborate with then in both preventive and remediation measures.

All the major agriculture companies rely heavily on water yet they are a source of its pollution. First, it is good to know that water is a finite resource and depreciates fast. Secondly, I am not aware of any data for Sierra Leone water reserve. And, finally, I am not aware of any impact assessment on these big mining and agriculture companies’ water usage.

Sewa News: What can be done? What isn't being done?

Sheikh Tunis: Government has created a national environmental agency. Sierra Leone’s Environmental Protection Agency is doing well despite the overwhelming challenges and legal boundaries.. The current director believes education, massive education is the way out. She is collaborating with ministry of education to reach out to students.

The environment agency has produced a lot of literature and helped in policy and rule creations. Now companies are required to produce environmental assessment before certain ventures. The agency is doing well.

However, the agency is not, in my estimation, collaborating with other environmental organization as it is supposed to. The agency’s monitoring capacity is too weak under the Minister of Lands and Country Planning.  The agency needs to revamp its outreach section and collaborate with other agencies and organization.

Participatory collaboration is the best way to environmental degradation; the more people are aware the better they behave. Environmental awareness is not a one man show; other ministries should be required to include environmental guards in all their projects.

Government MUST protect sensitive areas from encroachments, especially Lumley beach and other beach fronts.  There is some remediation effort in Kono by a non-governmental organization (NGO). I expect government to require and make sure all mined land is remediated. I am not aware of any reforestation effort by any of the three big giants in Sierra Leone.

Heaps of garbage at store- and home-fronts, street corners and other locations are no longer just an issue in Kroo bay or a discomfort for the poorest, but a national disgrace; from government buildings in Tower hill, Freetown to the streets of Makeni, Bo, Kenema and Sefadu.

As citizens what can we do to raise environmental awareness, promote responsible land use, coexistence in our environment and avoid further degradation? How do we reverse this ugly trend? Is our population growing at three plus percent too much for our pace of development or is our response to urbanization adequate?

Everyone generates waste and must know what and where s/he places waste. It is very common to see individuals throwing plastic bottles in the gutters and other places where they are not supposed to be. How clean our walking, living and trading space will be if we all refuse to place our dirt, garbage and other waste on the street or gutters.

Many of us, especially those from the diaspora, wonder why Freetown is so congested, clogged with dirt, stink and health hazards. Many don't realize that from Waterloo to Kailahun, Kambia to Pujehun all major cities are facing similar situations: dirt, congestion, stink etc. I am still wondering about how we interact with the environment we live, how we conceive the areas we live and work? To understand why we live in squalid conditions, I think we should first unravel our way of thinking about our environment. Why do we treat our living space with contempt?

Sewa News: What's the future?

Sheikh Tunis: It all boils down to our current and immediate response. Government should remove EPA from the Ministry of Lands and Country Planning, strengthen the EPA human resource, give it the legal authority to stop developments and  fine environmental flouters. The public must be made aware of environmental issues, problems, consequences and individual citizens be punished for desecrating the environment. Failure to act now will be regretted in the near future


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