Post-War Sierra Leone and Ebola: The Perfect Storm?

Level of Urbanization in Freetown, Sierra Leone April 6, 1985 (left) and February 9, 2011 (right)
The Pink Areas Signify 'Urbanized'/'Built-Up' Terrain and the Green Represents Forested Terrain
The rate of urbanization in the developing world, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, is increasing rapidly. Urbanization is defined as changes in land-cover and land use of a predefined area from being considered ‘underdeveloped’ to ‘developed’ or ‘built-up’. One of the drivers of this rapid urbanization is the fact that many people who once inhabited rural areas are now migrating to the cities for (perceived) better pay and more opportunities.

In 2008, half of the world’s population was living in towns identified as being ‘urban‘, and it's estimated that between 2000 and 2030, urban populations will grow by at least 175%. Furthermore, although this rapid urbanization is occurring worldwide, the fastest rates of urbanization are occurring in sub-Saharan Africa. Statistics show that in the 1950s, Africa’s urban population grew 15%, while in the 1990s it grew 32%, and it is projected that by 2030 between 54% and 60% of sub-Saharan Africa’s population will live in urban areas.

Urbanization has many benefits for those seeking better living  standards and increased access to income generating opportunities, but as the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa has shown us, increased urbanization also has significant risks and drawbacks. In the area of public health, increased urbanization aggravates existing health problems and increases chances of contamination of contagious diseases. In small villages, contagions can be quarantined and controlled, but in urbanized areas, disease is much more difficult to control.

I’ve been reading up on the West Africa Ebola outbreak over the past year, not only because it’s the biggest public health problem of the day, but also because I lived and worked in Sierra Leone on 4 different occasions and I still feel connected with the country that sparked by interest in Africa. Ebola has significantly changed Sierra Leone from the country that I knew during my most recent visit 3 years ago. Since the Ebola outbreak, my Sierra Leonean friends have changed their lifestyles, lost loved ones, and in the case of my friend Bella Baldeh, changed occupations from being a maternity nurse to owning an Ebola care and supply center in Bo, Southern Province.

It seems as if Sierra Leone makes the news only when misfortune hits. For those who don’t know much about the tiny West African country, it has a population smaller than New York and a landmass smaller than the state of South Carolina. The capital is Freetown and it sits on the Western Area peninsula.  Sierra Leone suffered from a decade long civil war, which ended in 2002. Both during and after the bloody civil war, many people fled their villages to Freetown in order to escape their destroyed villages and in order to have increased access to more opportunities in the capital. 

Most Affected Provinces in West Africa via CDC
However, Freetown's urbanization was hasty, which resulted in the development of shoddy permanent residences and a plethora of of decrepit slums. For public health, rapid and haphazard urbanization results in poor health and unsanitary conditions, which makes it difficult to control contagious diseases, as evidenced in the 2012 cholera outbreak during my last visit to the country and the current Ebola outbreak.

After the end of the civil war, Freetown’s population continued to steadily rise and so did it’s level of urbanization. But how has this urbanization affected the Ebola outbreak? Sierra Leone is now the West African nation with the most number of Ebola cases (over 10,000 and counting), and Freetown (the Western Area) is the hardest hit area of Sierra Leone in terms of confirmed cases. So it begs to be asked: if the civil war didn’t encourage such hasty urbanization, would Sierra Leone have fared better in this epidemic?

While many geographers are concerned with urban sprawl in the developing world, few, if any, have studied Freetown, Sierra Leone. Back in college, I chose this case study to explore, which showed significant increase in urban sprawl and built-up areas between each set of dates, particularly in the post-war period between 2000 and 2011. For example, between 1985 and 2000, the city built the peninsular road, which runs along the western coast of the Peninsula and is evident in the image to the left as the green line extending along the coast. Also between 1985 and 2000, there has been significant development in the Lumley area of Freetown, which can be seen in image to the left as a large green swath depicting positive change in the upper center of the peninsula. The area of growth and development is estimated to be around 995,029 square meters.

Between 2000 and 2011 there was a significant increase in developed settlements on the interior of the peninsula, in the area known as Hill Station and New Freetown. This change is shown in image to the left as the large blue area of change in the upper center of the peninsula, which is next to the development in Lumley discussed in the previous paragraph. The area of this recently built-up portion of the city is estimated to be around 5,832,076 square meters – in other words nearly five times the size of the built-up area of Lumley that occurred between 1985 and 2000.
Freetown Urbanization 1985-2011

It should be noted that both of these settlements and much of the large land changes that occurred did so along the periphery of the city limits, often being built on formerly forested land. It can be assumed that land is being built-up on the periphery because the interior of the city is already densely inhabited. Furthermore, the hilly terrain of the capital makes building in many areas dangerous, especially with landslides. The built-up areas that developed in Lumley and Hill Station have encroached on the forested mountains of the interior of the peninsula, encroaching closer to natural landmarks like the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary. It can be argued that if Freetown’s urban sprawl continues as it has in the past three decades, then in the coming decades, some of the peninsula’s biodiversity may be lost or in danger from development and the conversion of forest and mountainous areas to built-up areas.

As a result of urbanization and urban migration, Freetown is being pushed to the limits, both in terms of physical size and in population. The ever increasing population hastens construction and creates unsanitary living conditions, which aggravates contagious disease. I'm sure that even if the war never occurred, Freetown's population would have nonetheless increased. However, due to the mass arrival of people in the post-war period, construction in Freetown is lackluster and the city planning is poor. Had Freetown's population growth been better planned and at a slower pace, perhaps the city would be cleaner and better developed, which would arguably mean that Ebola would not have been so easily spread. Unfortunately, this didn't happen. Let this serve as a warning to other cities experiencing rapid urbanization in the developing world. One of the many lessons the current Ebola epidemic teaches us is that urbanization and city planning need to be taking seriously in public health. If further neglected, this may not be the last unnecessary public health tragedy.


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