Preparing For Natural Disasters in Liberia: Unforeseen Impacts of Environmental Changes


Global environmental changes are becoming inevitable, owing to human activities impacting the environment and accelerating global climate change. Sadly, these changes are increasing vulnerability of coastal countries to unprecedented natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis, mudslides, and flooding; and the impacts of such disasters double in poor countries with little or no resources to prepare in advance.

In West Africa, this is even worse for Manor River Union (MRU) countries (Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Ivory Coast), that are exposed to high rainfall, over-exploitation of natural resources, increasing deforestation, poor urban planning, overcrowded cities and poverty.

For instance, the flooding caused by the tropical storm Harvey on the southern US coast killed about 70 people despite its unprecedented damage caused in Texas and Louisiana because of early warnings and rapid emergency response. Any flooding of seminar magnitude in a third-world country would triple if not quadruple the death toll because of their unpreparedness.

In view of the aforementioned, the news of a recent earthquake reported off the shores of Liberia, and the recent mudslides in neighboring Sierra Leone, prompt a million-dollar question. That is, how prepare is the region or Liberia in particular to respond to devastating impacts of natural hazards such as those listed above? T

he answer to this question seems very obvious. Back forwarding things a little bit, the Ebola virus outbreak that took away thousands of lives in the region exposed the unpreparedness of the region, particularly Liberia’s health system beyond the expectation of many.

This seems to be the same situation today in Sierra Leone, in the face of the devastating mudslides that killed hundreds of people and left thousands homeless. Probably the fatality rate would have been lesser had there been functioning institutions carrying out in-country research to predict natural disasters and warn residents in advance. The lack of research and data to predict these natural phenomena beforehand and provide warning to would be affected areas can double their impacts.

Historically, there had been few records of such disasters in the region, and they have been devastating. For example, in 1983 a magnitude 6.2 earthquake struck Guinea, killing nearly 300 people, injuring 1500, and leaving over 18,000 people homeless (Langer et al 1987).

In furtherance, the shock was also felt in adjacent countries of Guinea-Bissau, Senegal, The Gambia and Liberia.  The recent mudslide in Sierra makes things even scarier.

Liberia is not different from its neighbors in any way, and is even at higher risk given its poor sanitation and environmental regulations, poor urban planning, high rate of deforestation, and lack of relevant research institutions and initiatives to predict and suggest preventive measures against natural disasters.

In and around Monrovia for example, it is a common practice for people to mine beach sand, build in wetlands, use wetlands and drainage as dump sites, blocking the free flow of water. With these practices on the increase in Liberia, any major flooding incidence in the wake of changing environmental conditions will be very devastating. 

So, what do we know so far?

We know that Liberia is highly vulnerable to natural disasters, owing to our poor sanitation practices, weak environmental institutions and regulations, and poor urban planning. We know that any major natural disasters will not only affect lives and property, but also biodiversity and other fabrics of the society, including the already suffering economy. We know that in Liberia it is no crime to cut down mangrove forests for firewood and charcoal production, build in wetlands and use wetlands as dump sites.

We know that these practices do not only destroy the habitats of species occurring in wetlands and mangrove swamps, but they also block the free flow of water and increase the probability of flooding in an event of torrential rainfall. We know that coastal cities in Liberia are already rapidly eroding, owing to natural and man-made causes such as sea level rise, low coastal plains, soft coastal soils, high tidal currents and heavy waves; beach sand mining, and poor regulations respectively.

It is no secret to any Liberian that coastal erosion has devastating effects, particularly the loss of infrastructure. A typical example of this is the rapid disappearance of the once gigantic edifices of D.Twe Memorial High School and Hotel Africa in Bushrod Island. Other evidence of coastal erosion can be seen all along the coast of Liberia. If these issues among others are not address accordingly, Liberia is bracing for the worse. 

How do we prepare for the unforeseen?

Climate change is global but its impacts are felt locally. Therefore, with poor urban planning, poor sanitation and weak environmental regulations among other things, Liberia is compounding the potential impacts of climate change.

Particularly in Monrovia and its immediate surrounding with unregulated infrastructural development and high population density and little or no environmental sensitivity.

The need for relevant institutions to ensure environmental potential threats solution, preventive approach, urban population health and environmental sustainability is very urgent. In furtherance, adopting low emission development strategies (LEDS) in Monrovia and Liberia at large will positively enhance environmental stability.

Hence, the country (Liberia) stands a great chance of leading innovative initiatives and becoming environmentally sustainable through activities that create thinkers, and emerging environmental leaders to find local solutions to national problems.

While other landlocked countries are yearning for coastal lands to enhance economic development, Liberia’s coastal land and wetlands are substantially abused. This seems laughable but real.  Deterioration of coastal land and wetlands are serious challenges for Liberia, but enforcing relevant laws in mitigating these challenges is the way forward.

The most important causes of land loss are erosion, inadequate sediment supply to beaches and wetlands and coastal submergence (rise in sea level).  The insensitivity towards wetlands in Liberia is worrisome. Wetlands are unique organic environments, leaving them to be destroyed or degraded is detrimental to the environment and the future generation.

Global climate change is real and its impacts are devastating. As such, far-sighted countries setup research institutions to investigate, prepare and appropriately confront natural disasters emanating from global environmental changes.  As population grows, sustainable development should be a fundamental epic while developing an economy for the masses.

Considerably, the vision statement of the African Development Bank (2000) has been clear on sustainable development as they mentioned that “poverty alleviation is not just a noble goal and a worthy cause, but it is central to the achievement of long term sustainable development of the continent.” This can only be achieved when we are conscious of environmental implications.

In conclusion, natural phenomena are almost entirely inevitable, particularly in the wake of human induced climate change. However, there are measures we can take to reduce their impacts before they strike. These include but not limited to (1) prioritization of local research by empowering research institutions to be able to predict the timing of potential natural hazards (e.g. torrential rainfall, flooding) and areas prone these disasters in advance.

This will reduce the devastating impacts given that residents in would be affected areas could be evacuated before the disaster strikes. (2) Formulating strong environmental and waste management laws and regulations, and ensuring that they are enforced adequately. (3) Prioritization of urban planning and depopulating overcrowded communities.

As Liberia sets a new agenda for the next 12 years, these trending global and local issues such as climate change, biodiversity conservation and sustainable development should be given serious attention.  While we wait to build or empower national institutions, the government and relevant institutions should start scouting for Liberian experts in-country or abroad to kick the ball rolling in local environmental research.

The authors of this article both experts in Environmental Science Remote Sensing, GIS and climate change issues have developed a concept aimed at using remotely sensed data to predict flooding areas in coastal cities across Liberia. When supported and implemented, this study will provide baseline data for research on these issues in Liberia. 

About the Authors

Ambulai Johnson is a blogger and Technical Researcher of Research Consortium for Public Health, Energy and Environmental Development. He has been trained in the fields of Natural Science, Public Health (Preventative Medicine), and Health Economics, Climate Change, Water and wastewater Treatment, Global Leadership, and Alternative Energy (Petroleum). He employs principles in each field to address health and environmental safety issues, create social and technological advancements, and reduce risk and disease caused by environmental hazards. 

Benedictus Freeman is a Ph. D student at the University of Kansas, USA and a Senior Researcher at Research Consortium for Public Health, Energy and Environmental Development. His research focuses on the conservation, ecology, and distributions of biodiversity, and how species respond to global climate change. Prior to his PhD study, Ben worked as Technical Assistant for research and education at Faun & Flora International, Liberia, and as an instructor in Forest Ecology and Conservation Biology at the University of Liberia. Ben has also provided independent consultancy to environmental companies in Liberia in environmental impact assessment. He has expertise in remote sensing, GIS, biodiversity inventories, conservation education and environmental impact assessment