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Massive rural-urban migration into Freetown is putting pressure on the city’s capacity to provide clean, safe drinking water for all its residents, writes Roland Bankole Marke. In a country whose infrastructure is ‘obsolete’ and nearing ‘breaking point’, Marke calls for the nation to make an overhaul of its structural water supply system its ‘top priority’. At present water shortages leave the city vulnerable to outbreaks of disease, while the poorest cannot afford water sold privately. Solutions discussed by Marke include organisation at community level to raise funds for securing water provision, and the construction of a dam on the Orugu River.

Water is a necessary resource for the survival of living organism, especially humankind. In parts of Africa, mainly in Sierra Leone today, water is perennially scarce. Its insatiable demand has outstripped a stagnated or disrupted supply. In a dusty and thirsty capital city Freetown, with scourging heat and temperatures reaching the extremes, this could trigger dehydration and other health challenges. However, exposure to moderate sunshine is a source of vitamin D: It lowers cholesterol, lowers blood pressure, regulates the immune system and stimulates the production of insulin. I discern solace knowing that this tiny nation of 6 million people about the size of Maine does not belong to a drought stricken perimeter. Instability, precipitated by this recovering nation’s decade long civil war, compounded with related economic setbacks helped to motivate the exodus of folk in search of a better life. Cultural milieu as psyche attracted migration to Freetown, where rural nomadic dwellers anticipate embracing their quintessential dream life.

Reality, unlike fallacy, would render folk homeless, starving and despondent, in a city, where cutthroat competition, resilience to survive and dynamics of a ruthless capitalism system prevail. In a functional democracy, government has no mandate to impede free movement of citizens from one region of the country to another. People are attracted to live where the most favourable conditions of living most likely exist. The ripple effects would implode on the scarce resources the migrants naturally consume, including water, food, housing, and job opportunities. Invariably the status quo is ill equipped to handle this monumental upsurge in demand for goods and services, especially clean and safe drinking water. A city that was initially projected to serve about 300,000–500,000 residents, it bears the Herculean burden of catering for about 1.2 million people, according to 1994 estimates. This rapid migration explosion is a self-induced hurricane that local communities and government would have to wrestle with.

The nation’s infrastructure has become obsolete, worn out, if not nearing breaking point. Government still crawls to measure up with technology operating at fibre optic pace in a modern economy. The necessity for capital investment is as paramount as it is desperate and urgent. A complete overhaul of the nation’s structural water supply system needs top priority. Whenever electricity is stabilised, water pumps could be installed in vulnerable locations, so that pressurised water could reach consumers living at high gradient or mountainous regions. Living in New York that is famous for high rising apartments and skyscrapers, residents there seldom experience water shortage or taps drying up in the tall buildings: Only during routine maintenance, prior to issuing notice to consumers of a disruption in service. Back home, the service providers seemingly are apathetic to the needs of the consumers, lacking the will and ability to maintain infrastructure, until the service finally breaks down.

Essential service hubs as Connaught Hospital, Princess Christian Hospital and local food markets in the heart of Freetown, experience acute water shortage. The taps could dry up: A glaring fact that the nation’s water crisis has reached a dangerous threshold. Outbreaks of communicable diseases including cholera, swine flu or epidemic could spell nightmarish catastrophe. Germs, viruses or bacteria flourish in an environment where they could adapt and thrive. Frequent washing of hands hinders pathogens responsible for infectious diseases from multiplying. Unavailability of water renders the scenario precarious and untenable. For most part of the year, Freetown residents face serious water shortage. Folk roam around with large plastic containers roaming for water like in a marooned Island. Those employed go to work with containers trying to fetch water. People who can afford it have installed water tanks, and for a bargain they could get regular water supply from fire trucks operated by employees of the nation’s Fire Force Brigade. It is not uncommon for duels between employees of Guma Water Company and Fire Force workers to spark up fracas or infrequent death may result. But who gives authority to the employees to unlatch fire hydrants, tapping the scarce water supply – possibly to sell to the highest bidder, illegally? Who is looking out for the poor folk, including the most vulnerable population – women and children – who could least afford to pay the asking price?

To help ease the burden on the suffering masses, the digging of water wells is taking place in various communities around the country with support from some elected leaders. From Wilberforce on the west, onto Kissy Road in the east, wells are popping up all around Freetown, mostly in densely populated areas. About 400 metres from the town of Grafton is a water plant factory – Grafton Spring Water that sells the finest and most refreshing bottled water in the nation. There is very little drinking water for the local community, many of whom have no access to the spring water. Their wells have broken or dried up. Children have become sick, while government has decided capping off the number of wells in the poor community that could otherwise be utilised.

A unique and telling case study is ‘Mojabi Cave Well’ at New England Ville built about 50 years ago, that now services some 6,000 people. This community had a water crisis long before I lived there in the 80s, but the authorities have eternally been looking on the other side. Youths in this area have mobilised themselves into forming the ‘Water of Life’ organisation that explores to find urgent solutions to the local needs. They collect donations from residents and well-wishers to fund the refurbishing of the well that had become a death trap, trying to work out lasting solutions to the ageless water problem.

On 18 April 2009,17 year-old Aminata Kamara, a student of Wallace Johnson Memorial School, went to the only well in the area to fetch water for domestic use. She was thirsty for water as she was for education, as she was preparing to take her examination the same day. While she was collecting water, a huge boulder rolled down and crushed her, killing her. Two other students were also injured, but were rescued from the gruesome accident. On the hilltop, trees were being cut down to erect new buildings or for use as fire wood. Soil erosion or landslide could have caused the stone to fall down after a heavy rain-storm. The victims who were rushed to the hospital survived. The tragedy precipitated a convulsion of grief in the community. Folk wept bitterly, blaming the elected leaders for not being sensitive to their pressing needs. Amid the emotional upheaval, member of parliament for West 2 constituency Julius Cuffie came to the scene to express condolences to the families affected. ‘Cuffie, go away, go away,’ the people yelled at him. Cuffie did not take it too well. He got furious for being disrespected in public. Hopefully, this tragedy would be an opportunity to erect a safe, clean drinking water well at New England Ville, and probably pioneer a tree planting campaign in memory of Aminata Kamara, as a fitting memorial immortalising her legacy.

Amid the heartache and growing challenges, there is a glimmer of optimism. Water experts have advised that the Orogu River at Hastings Village is the answer to the water supply crisis in Freetown. Atkins consulting firm of the UK, assisted by other local partners including Oxfam and a local engineering firm 3BMD, studied the water and sanitation problems in Freetown, to help craft a long-term solution. Leading consultant of Atkins, Richard Shepard, stressed that with the current population explosion prevalent in the city, compounded with the stride for development, the Orugu Dam is the only lasting solution to the water crisis in the city. The current Guma supply to the city was 83 million litres a day, equivalent to 16 million gallons a day.

The Orugu project in the initial stage would provide the city with 75 million litres of water per day, equivalent to an additional 12 million gallons a day. The studies said that the Orugu scheme came in three stages as the first phase could provide the city with at least 28 million gallons per day and the second and third stages tripling that number. Douglas Hunt, another Atkins consultant, appealed to the government to halt all developmental activities within the catchments perimeter. On the sanitation problem, Jonathan Parkinson and others solicited the government to reintroduce rigid laws on health and sanitation. An official of Guma pinpointed that the current Guma facility could no longer cope with the alarming population explosion in Freetown.

The minister of lands, country planning and the environment, Dr. Dennis Sandy, while addressing a session of Parliament recently said, ‘I’m willing and ready to expose with evidence to substantiate my point that some parliamentarians in the Western Area are indeed involved in illegal land transactions.’ While a foreign critic interjected that corruption is not a native of any land, it finds easier homes in some. The ‘protecting the environment versus development’ argument gets very heated. What happens to the rain forests when deforestation is taking place at an alarming rate? Expecting rain to ease the water shortage is far fetched with the assault being done to the environment at present. Nobel Peace Prize laureate and first African woman to win the prestigious accolade, Kenyan born Wangai Maathai, in a fierce and urgent speech in London said recently there is a change taking place. ‘We can hardly keep up with the requests [for help]. The tree is just a symbol for what happens to the environment. The act of planting one is a symbol of revitalising the community. Tree planting is only the entry point into the wider debate about the environment. Everyone should plant a tree,’ she said. ‘Nature is still being taken for granted. Yet when it is destroyed, life itself goes. Politicians [everywhere] are putting immediate needs ahead of the long term. We must challenge the decision makers. We must appeal not just to their heads, but to their hearts. I can only see things getting worse if we do nothing,’ she emphasised. Sierra Leone and the rest of the world need to heed Maathai’s passionate appeal.

Roland Bankole Marke is the author of Teardrops Keep Falling, Silver Rain and Blizzard and Harvest of Hate (Fuel for the Soul).
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