Lessons from Ebola inform mudslide relief in Sierra Leone

Emergency responders rush to the scene of a massive landslide in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Photo by: John James / UNICEF

ABIDJAN — Humanitarians responding to last week’s mudslide in Freetown, Sierra Leone, are drawing on the lessons, institutions and residual NGO presence left behind by the 2014 Ebola crisis to streamline their operations.

Responding organizations told Devex that the 2014 crisis built stronger coordination processes and better communication between organizations, government and affected communities. They said that relief for the mudslide — which to date has killed nearly 500, left another 600 missing and displaced thousands — has been improved by the groundwork laid during the Ebola outbreak.

“It’s the blessing in disguise a bit that there’s already this institutional presence of large NGOs that have extensive experience in large-scale emergencies, and particularly public health emergencies as we’re seeing with this emergency as well,” Catholic Relief Services’ emergency response coordinator Idalia Amaya said.  

When Ebola struck Sierra Leone three years ago, the initial aid response was disjointed and plagued by “working silos,” in which organizations and sectors operated without coordination, World Vision Sierra Leone country director James Chifwelu told Devex.

Over the course of the outbreak, however, processes gradually improved as government officials, United Nations agencies, international NGOs and local support groups in country worked to put an end to the highly contagious Ebola virus, which left roughly 4,000 dead and saw 14,000 confirmed cases.

Following the mudslide, those stronger institutional mechanisms kicked in to guide the aid response, Chifwelu said. All NGOs are coordinating under the lead of the national government and the Office of National Security. “This time we have two meetings everyday with government officials to create a structured response and harmonized effort,” he said.

A designated ministry presides over daily pillar coordination meetings to address health, nutrition, protection, shelter and psychosocial support. The sectoral meetings, attended by U.N. agencies and NGOs, discuss policy recommendations and operational considerations to be presented to the government’s Office of National Security.

“What we’ve learned in this large-scale emergency is the importance of coordination going through one channel and having meetings for every pillar of the disaster response,” Amaya argued.

A massive landslide in the Regent area of Freetown, Sierra Leone, has lead to hundreds of deaths as sites flood across the capital city. Photo by: John James / UNICEF

Also since the Ebola outbreak, a number of organizations have retained a residual presence in Sierra Leone. Save the Children, World Vision and the International Rescue Committee are among those with in-country teams, which could quickly pivot to focusing on recovery. World Vision, for example, had more than 4 million packets of water purification tablets in stock, along with blankets that were used to respond immediately.

Most organizations did reduce their staff after the Ebola epidemic, said Chifwelu, “but the development industry is organized in such a way that it is flexible and agile to be able to expand and contract depending on the context to make sure not to disrupt the ongoing work in country, which is also very vital.”

The emergency remains in its infancy. Response efforts so far are still addressing urgent basic needs based on initial assessments. Future mudslides are possible with rainy season continuing for another month.

Relief groups are starting to think longer term, however. In the immediate aftermath of the crisis, schools, churches, mosques and community centers have hosted and served as distribution points for the displaced population. However, with the school year expected to resume in two weeks, Chifwelu told Devex that pillar meetings are also considering other options. As part of the shelter pillar, affected people have been defined by three categories: homeless as a result of flooding, host families who are taking in the displaced, and those still residing in “risky” areas.

Long-term response considerations include how to provide dignified burials for the deceased, permanent shelter for those occupying schools and churches, and incentives for families hosting the displaced. According to Chifwelu, NGOs have also called for the government to reconsider the legal adoption process for children who have lost parents and are being hosted by neighbors and loved ones, in order to avoid the potential rise in homeless children.

Aid groups are also working to adopt another lesson from the Ebola crisis: the importance of engaging those affected. For example, organizations are focusing on improving communication between communities and aid organizations, Chifwelu said.

“[One] good thing is that there is intentionality at doing better, including communities in response coordination, making a dialogue to understand what [are the] needs — even though from time to time, it is being discovered that teams are doing similar work and need to come together.”

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About the author

  • Christin Roby

    Christin Roby worked as the West Africa Correspondent for Devex, covering global development trends, health, technology, and policy. Before relocating to West Africa, Christin spent several years working in local newsrooms and earned her master of science in videography and global affairs reporting from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Her informed insight into the region stems from her diverse coverage of more than a dozen African nations.