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ANALYSIS

Sierra Leone's Waste Management Challenges

By Zainab Tunkara Clarkson

As the urban population of Freetown grows to almost 1.2 m estimated, so too are the burden associated with waste management. This is due to a combination of several factors to include but not limited to lack of regulatory regimes, inadequate budgetary allocations for urban sanitation and in cases where there are laws, lack of enforcement.

The population of other urban centres like Makeni, Kenema, Kono and Bo for instance, have also grown immensely to points whereby the need for an effective local waste management structures to maintain public health has become very absolutely necessary. Similarly, the problems range from the lack of proper management of domestic waste, industrial rubbish, the need for the provision of public toilets to the growing menace of food/water packaging and bottling.

Across Sierra Leone, no city has a municipal authority that caters for such waste management as is the case in industrialised countries where local governments take charge of such matters. In Europe for instance, local councils are responsible for emptying dustbins, maintaining landfill sites, disposal of recyclable material and the provision of public toilets.

According to the World Health Organisation, Sierra Leone needs to do a lot more to combat the spread of urban diseases, which can be attributed to inadequate waste management structures. Last year, 12 of the 13 districts in Sierra Leone suffered the worst cholera outbreak in 15 years reporting more than 19 000 cases and 274 deaths with the western area, where Freetown the capital city is located; being the most affected reporting more than 50% of total cases. In July 2012, President Ernest Koroma declared the cholera epidemic a humanitarian crisis and as such a high level Presidential Cholera Task Force was established to oversee coordination, mobilization of resources and guide the response.

As shown by this pandemic and the threat of more, it is therefore obvious that health, sanitation and waste management should be a major factor in city planning. The increasing urbanization and population density in Freetown and the other major cities heightened the risk, by making these cities become hubs for the transmission of cholera and other infectious diseases, resulting to a leading cause of mortality and morbidity across the country. Therefore, our municipalities need to take these threats very seriously and begin proper planning otherwise there may come a time when they may not be able to cope with these influx in the midst of limited resources. The large rubbish dumps within residential areas in the city, uncollected garbage, and the habit of depositing faeces in open places as well as the preponderance of pools of still water, all heightened the risk for the urban dwellers not just for those living in slumps as many of the city elites tend to think but for the entire city. Two years ago before the cholera outbreak a Sierra Leonean independent policy think tank Sierra Leone Policy Watch Inc. actually foresaw the problem and the threat it poses to the population and sent  a set of recommendations to the government on how to avert the looming challenges of waste and sanitation. Is it therefore reasonable to assume that, these recommendations if they were taken seriously could have prevented some of the loss of life? The following link on Waste Management can be accessed through: http://sdrv.ms/UViwGH 

For instance, between 1990 and 2010, the population of Sierra Leone grew by 1.8m, while only 325,000 people had secured access to sanitation over the same period. In total, over 5.1m out of 5.8m people or 87% of the country's population are without access to a safe toilet.

It is believed that 27% of the population use shared latrines, while 28% practice open defecation. According to government estimates, average annual expenditure on water and sanitation almost doubled between 2008 and 2011 representing almost 1.3% of our gross domestic product (GDP). One would reasonably assume that this increase in expenditure should help to address the problem at least by the same proportion, but only if the budgetary allocation is judiciously managed, otherwise the increase would mean nothing with regards to solving the problem. It also depends on the sense of urgency or importance the government attributes to the problem of health and sanitation.

Unfortunately, in the 2012/2013 budgetary year the expenditure on sanitation was reduced to only 0.01%, far short of the 0.5% that the government committed to spending on sanitation alone, at the 2008 eThekwini African Union declaration. International charity WaterAid, recently called on the government to not only honour this pledge but go further by aiming to spend at least 1% of GDP on sanitation and hygiene, in line with the recommendations of a 2011 World Bank report.

Recently, the United Nations Development Programme has estimated that developing countries could be losing as much as 5% of their GDP due to the lack of access to sanitation and water. In the case of Sierra Leone, this would translate to nearly 500bn Leones ($114.28m) a year.

Apollos Nwafor, WaterAid's Sierra Leonean team leader, said: “Sierra Leoneans waste 300 million hours every year looking for somewhere to go to the toilet. You can add to this the costs of illness and medical bills of those contracting diseases, due to the unhygienic conditions. This therefore means, the loss to Sierra Leone is likely to run into the hundreds of billions of Leones per year”.

Even if the government spends half of the above estimate to address the serious problem of sanitation it should make economic sense in helping to limit the water poverty and its daily toll on human life, health and livelihoods.

What makes the situation so pathetic is that it costs the government far less to provide appropriate sanitation and waste management facilities than it does to combat epidemics when they break out. Setting up a manageable waste management regime, introducing best practices when it comes to refuse disposal and providing public toilets are all relatively cheap compared with the cost of containing a disease outbreak.

Until this is done, the millions of dollars spent annually on expensive drugs and health administration across Sierra Leone to combat childhood and maternal mortality will remain ineffective.

Hopefully, the government will realise this and honour its 2008 eThekwini commitments that obliges it to take the matter of public sanitation seriously. Hopefully this can be done to prevent another cholera epidemic, particularly now that it is the rainy season.

About the author:

Zainab is a Public Health Trainer and the CEO of Community Health Initiative Empowerment Foundation (CHIEF). She is also a Founding partner of VOSL. She has a BA degree in Business and Marketing and a postgraduate degree in International Development Management.

Zainab has worked extensively in private, public and voluntary sector areas across UK in Senior Management positions (non-profit sector). Zainab currently serves as a Chairlady and Trustee on the Board of the Greenwich Inclusion Project, as well as AFRUCA – Africans Unite against Child Abuse (UK).

She is also a Board Member of Teach For Sierra Leone and Greenwich Black and Minority Ethnic Forum. Furthermore Zainab is the Director of Marketing and Gender/ Children Editor for Voices from the Diaspora Radio Show.