By Foday Moriba Conteh
The Mayor of the Freetown City Council (FCC), Her Worship, Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, is a vocal supporter of the Global Green New Deal, which was launched at the C40 World Mayors Summit in Copenhagen in October as a solution to tackle inequality and the climate crisis together.
In January last year, Mayor Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr launched the Transform Freetown plan, a three-year vision for the development of the city. It aims to work with residents to address a range of issues from waste management and housing, to improving urban planning and tackling environmental degradation. In 2020, Freetown committed to planting 1 million trees to build resilience against flooding and absorb carbon dioxide. Freetown is a GEF-7 Sustainable Cities Impact Programme (SCIP) city; the programme supports cities pursuing integrated urban planning and implementation that delivers impactful sustainable development outcomes with global environmental benefits.
In an exclusive interview during which she was asked that as we are still dealing with the pandemic and cities are very much on the frontline what kind of challenges she is facing in Freetown, the Mayor responded aptly.
She said the numbers are low but the outbreak has meant that people have been nervous about using health facilities noting how it is a risk because health conditions, which otherwise would not have been as challenging, are becoming problematic.
The Mayor in dilating on the impact on the economy she said much of our economy is import-led, so restrictions on commerce mean not being able to get things in as supply chains are disrupted. She further disclosed how there were anecdotes of trucks with fresh produce going rotten at inter-district border crossings when travel restrictions were put in place to limit the spread of the Coronavirus disease and such led to increases in prices of fresh produce in markets in Freetown.
She highlighted how they are trying to implement preventive measures in a city where there is a great informality, particularly informal housing maintaining that Freetown now has up to about 74 informal settlements. According to her ,where there are dense populations and overcrowded housing, it is very challenging to have social distancing.
“The Freetown City Council COVID-19 preparedness response plan was designed to address these challenges as best as we can, she underscored.
Responding to a question relating to the FCC’s response plan, Major Aki-Sawyer said they are looking to make sure people take the virus and measures seriously.
She stated how they also need to make it possible to follow measures like washing hands and wearing masks also disclosing how they have put over 100 water tanks – some of which come with rainwater harvesting systems – in communities, in health clinics, and in marketplaces and distributed about 90,000 locally produced masks to the most vulnerable, with a target of 120,000.
She said they are developing urban farming projects in informal settlements to improve food security and resilience amongst their residents.
Asked what does the pandemic tell us about the need to prepare for climate change, the FCC Mayor replied that climate change is on us stating that a pandemic like this means that the impacts of climate change can translate into increased vulnerability of populations like people living in informal settlements, in inadequate housing and sanitation. She said there is a real need to ensure both climate change mitigation and investment in infrastructure, as well as reducing rural-urban migration happens now.
Informal settlements in Freetown, she continued, have grown as a result of rural-urban migration noting that these informal settlements are created along the coast near mangroves, which, according to her, is destroying the natural habitat, and along the hillside of Freetown, which results in massive deforestation with the result of denuded hill sides pointing out that with abnormal rainfall,such leads to flooding.
She stated that as part of their response to climate change, they have invested in sanitation and flood mitigation, as the city has been plagued with floods.
Aki-Sawyer said when the rainy season started they did a massive clearance of gutters and waterways and are also implementing the #FreetownTheTreeTown campaign, through which FCC aims to reduce erosion and run off, and increase vegetation cover in the city by planting one million trees.
In terms of the need for infrastructure investment and how does the development of green infrastructure help as well as the kind of things they are doing in Freetown beyond tree planting, Aki-Sawyer said investment in green infrastructure is absolutely necessary: from a biodiversity perspective, from a carbon sink perspective.
She said tt is also about how we create our cities so that they are more liveable adding that green infrastructure has benefits for quality of life.
The Mayor pointed out that moving beyond green infrastructure, sanitation, waste management and the circular economy are key.
“I mentioned that one of our investment areas is urban farming. We have given tricycles to youth groups to collect household waste and create employment. With the urban farming element, you can separate waste and have compost brought back for urban farming at the community level. Investing in the circular green economy is where we’d like to go,’’ she expressed determination..
Mayor Aki-Sawyer stated that everyone’s climate change commitment reflects their climate change impact saying with them they have two sectors that are high greenhouse gas emitters: waste management and transport.
“When I came in as Mayor, we had 21 per cent of solid waste and 6 per cent of liquid waste being collected. Our ambition is to increase both to at least 60 per cent by 2022. We are finalizing the design of a sanitary landfill park. We are working on a cable car system to carry an estimated number of 6000 people per hour, with a target date of 2022 to reduce reliance on the current informal low-occupancy public transport system,’’ she furthered.
In her response as to how she is working with the private sector and whether she is seeing more awareness and money coming from businesses she said the cable car investment is a clear example, as there is a business interest in running mass transit.
She revealed that the flood mitigation project this year it is paid for with the support of development partners, but before they had support from private sector players. The Mayor said they are launching a new green space, which used to be a big roundabout which was in disrepair, in partnership with a bank. According to her these are examples of collaboration also saying even with the sanitation, there will be private sector players and they are private suppliers in every element.
In terms of engaging local communities and if people are getting the impacts of climate change and changing their behaviour she replied that
they had a very large mudslide in 2017 that killed over 1,000 people; that has really focused minds.
“I think people understand the issue of flooding and their causes on a large scale. When it rains now, we put posts on Facebook and on WhatsApp to explain our flood mitigation work. People can see that what we are clearing away from the gutters is soil coming from the hills because of deforestation. But a person who cuts down trees to build a home or make charcoal to feed their family needs an alternative. That’s where we have to come in with solutions. This is where the investment is needed and that is why subnational Government need access to resources,’’ she asserted.
The Mayor said she would say 90 per cent of what she described has been paid with development funding saying that is not the story they want also affirming how that is not the resilience experience as it is not sustainable. She said building investment into jobs – green and circular jobs is important so that they have a cycle that will enable residents to pay their local taxes and property rates and in turn enable the city to make these investments without external funding.
Dilating on how the plan “Transform Freetown” will promote integration across sectors and the sectors she is prioritizing to achieve cross-cutting results Mayor Aki-Sawyer said their three-year plan for the city is called Transform Freetown.
According to her it has four clusters and 11 priority sectors, with the clusters being: resilience, human development, a healthy city and urban mobility. She said everything ties into resilience, climate change adaptation and mitigation.
« It’s recognizing that to deal with these issues you’ve got to look at water, housing, sanitation, job creation and skills development amongst other things. The 11 priority sectors are our commitment to integration and building a sustainable city, »the Major stated
With regards any message she may have for international organizations in terms of how they can support Freetown and other cities to become sustainable, the FCC Mayor pointed out that when she looks at climate change action and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), she believes that implementation happens locally, on the ground.
She said to save our climate and world, we need operational action to be taken, as well, of course, as policies at the national level. According to her the point that is made repeatedly by the Mayors she talks to is that city Governments need access to financial resources, from the private sector as well as institutional development partners emphasizing that it is so important for subnational Governments to have access to development partner funding directly.