As a major port city, Freetown, also the capital city of Sierra Leone, is an important urban, economic, financial, cultural and political centre with a diverse population of more than one million people. “It’s a city that’s nestled along a plain, bordered with the Atlantic Ocean and surrounded by mountains,” describes Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, Mayor of Freetown since 2018. She continues: “Freetown is a city with a lot of challenges. Some initiating from the geography, but others because of external factors that date back to the war”: a civil war, in the 90s, that left over 50,000 dead in the country. Freetown also more recently experienced an Ebola epidemic and has already been severely impacted by climate change: the poor farming yields being just one consequence of this global crisis.
Following three days of torrential rainfall, Sugar Loaf, a mountain overlooking Freetown, partially collapsed — triggering huge mudslides in the early morning of 14 August 2017. “In just under five minutes, over a thousand people died,” recalls Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr. The mudslide completely submerged many houses and structures, killed the residents trapped inside, and left more than 3,000 people homeless.
At the root of this human catastrophe, the poor state of the region’s infrastructure and the loss of protective natural drainage systems. The construction of large homes in hillside areas has also been criticized, as well as the unrestricted deforestation that weakened the stability of nearby slopes and caused soil erosion, leading to the disaster. Fueled by the desire to rescue her city from climate disaster like this one, and with the ambition to transform Freetown so that the city adapts to climate change, Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr decided to run for office.
“The expression ‘climate change’ has really taken off in recent years and many people talk about environmental challenges from that perspective. But when I was running for office, I was driven by a deep desire to save our city,” she explains. Saving the city would mean saving its natural foundation from constant deforestation, the cutting down of the forests along the mountain sides; and from the destruction of the coastal line, as mangroves were being destroyed due to poor sanitation and dumping litter into the sea.
“Generally speaking, as a continent, we are not a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, not at any sort of level in comparison to the big polluters of the West,” says Aki-Sawyerr. But with poor sanitation and poor waste management comes emissions. Dump-sites similar to the ones that exist in Freetown emit methane, a greenhouse gas responsible for climate change. The environmental degradation, deforestation, and destruction of mangroves as well as the terrible state of sanitation, were also at the heart of the candidate’s platform. “Converting those uncontrolled dumpsites into sanitary landfills allows for greenhouse gas reduction. And at the same time, the public health impacts of poor sanitation, which is very important for the average resident in Freetown, is also addressed.” This is how climate change became part of the candidate’s narrative. On March 7th, 2018, she won the election with almost 60% of the votes, beating five competitors, all male.
Action on climate
“Climate change for us here in Freetown looks like extreme weather conditions. It looks like terrible rainfall, which we’re seeing in other parts of the world, but within our own context, led to the deadly mudslide” recalls Aki-Sawyerr. And so within four weeks after being in office, the newly elected mayor started Freetown’s flood mitigation policy.
Working with engineers from the council, army engineers, and communities (who know exactly where the flood flash points are located), the city has mapped out areas where there was a need to unblock drains, fix broken culverts, and is working on addressing them one at a time. Recently, the extreme weather conditions have caused less flooding, and after only a few years of implementing Aki-Sawyerr climate policies, the damages have already been mitigated. “In 2018, for the first time in five years, there was no flooding in Freetown. In 2019, we had two extreme weather events. On the 2nd of August there was one hundred and seventy-six millimeters of rain in three hours and four people lost their lives. That’s four lives too many. But everywhere around the city, there was an acknowledgement that the work that had been done in terms of opening up those blockages had worked.”
The mitigation efforts also highlighted the importance of the efforts made by the local government to improve sanitation, such as clearing the gutters and the drains, the introduction of new legislation around sanitation, and the replacement of the dumpsites with a waste park with wastewater treatment. “The combination of the flood mitigation plan and our work on improved sanitation meant that the floodwaters rose very, very fast, but it also receded very, very fast,” explains Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr.
The Mayor wants to find a longer-term fix for every issue in the city. One of the 19 targets of her “Transform Freetown” agenda is to increase by 50% the vegetation cover in the city by 2022. “In the past rainy season, in 2019, we planted 23,000 trees. In 2020, we’ve set ourselves a goal to plant a million trees in Freetown.” She continues: “There’s a whole range of work that we’re doing which is making our city more resilient to the vagaries or the impact of climate change, also ensuring that in our own way, we play our role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”
“We need to understand that we are in a climate emergency and that we need to be making decisions on a personal level... It's these individual actions that will as the saying goes, ‘the little drops of water that will make the mighty ocean’”.
Creating a space for dialog
Aki-Sawyerr brings a new vision to Sierra Leone. Known for working neighborhood by neighborhood to develop locally driven transformation plans, she has brought a radical transformation in governance to the capital of the country. Her style of governance is focused on consensus building, and collaborative approaches. “We have powers, of course, as a city government but it doesn’t mean that because you’ve got the power, you need to use that power without creating a space for dialogue,” she says. The mayor likes to invite parties to come to the table and discuss, which she says might be one of the main distinctions between her administration and previous male-led administrations. “And it seems also that it may be a more effective way of dealing with challenging situations,” concludes Aki-Sawyerr.
Women are specifically invited to share their knowledge, as Freetown recently partnered with C40 Cities to launch Women4Climate Mentorship Program, a platform for women who have ideas and want to be a part of the solution to be mentored by female experts. “The council brought on board the Sierra Leone Institute of Women Engineers, recognizing that although they don’t have a monopoly on climate solutions, female engineers in the city would also have a perspective on some of the challenges that we need to address as we grapple with the impacts of climate change, and on how we adapt and how we play our role in reducing the growth of climate change.” Data in Sierra Leone shows that 60 to 70% of those impacted by natural disaster are women and children. “The women are bearing the brunt, as is often the case disproportionately when there’s a conflict or challenges. And we see a situation where those who feel it the most are also in a position to give their ideas and to build those ideas into something practical in terms of solutions,” explains Aki-Sawyerr. These women are then mentored and benefit from both the city’s female engineers knowledge and C40 expertise and an information-sharing platform from other cities. “There’s no age limit, no professional background limit, so it really gives women from around the city, from all walks of life, a huge opportunity to be part of something which will enable them to grow as individuals, as well as to strengthen what the city can do because their ideas are coming to play,” explains the mayor.
Among the innovative ideas, a woman who trades in a market suggested working on a campaign to raise awareness of climate change among market women. Another one wanted to create backyard farming. All those ideas can bring tangible improvements to the way Freetown does its climate action work, says the mayor, who highlights the importance of having everyone on board. “We need to understand that we are in a climate emergency and that we need to be making decisions on a personal level to reduce our use of plastic, to reduce our carbon footprint, to contribute to initiatives, simple ones like beach clean ups, like tree planting. They might seem cute, you know, or just like cliché, but it’s these individual actions that will as the saying goes, ‘the little drops of water that will make the mighty ocean’”.
Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr OBE was sworn in as Mayor of Freetown in May 2018 with a commitment to transform Freetown using an inclusive, data-driven approach to address challenges in the city. A chartered accountant with over 25 years of private sector experience in strategic planning and risk management, Mayor Aki-Sawyerr’s public sector engagement began with her work as Director of Planning at the National Ebola Response Centre during the 2014-15 Ebola epidemic. Mayor Aki-Sawyerr is co-founder of the Sierra Leone War Trust for Children (SLWT) which supports disadvantaged children in Sierra Leone today.