UNICEF's emergency preparedness and response in Sierra Leone
Over the past decades, Sierra Leone has experienced multiple man-made and natural disasters. In the past ten years alone, the country has suffered significant outbreaks of preventable diseases including cholera and measles, as well as a regional epidemic of the deadly Ebola Virus Disease (EVD), which lasted two years and infected more than 8,000 people in the country, killing an estimated 3,500. According to the World Health Organization, that number includes more than 150 health workers who lost their lives – representing a serious blow to the country’s health care system, which continues to struggle to meet the needs of the nation.
Sierra Leone also remains prone to serious environmental hazards such as drought, flooding, coastal erosion and landslides, each of which are exacerbated by ongoing climate change. In 2017, torrential rains led to a mudslide on the outskirts of the capital city, Freetown, which killed more than 500 people and displaced 3,000 more. While the mudslide was directly triggered by heavy downpours – a common occurrence during the country’s annual six-month long rainy season – the tragic event was also largely contributed to by rapid urbanization, illegal and haphazard housing development, and deforestation. Particularly in the country’s urban centres, each of these issues are becoming increasingly common, and pose considerable threats for inhabitants in years to come.
Similarly, in 2019, multiple flooding incidents occurred in six districts across Sierra Leone, which damaged homes and temporarily displaced several thousand households, contaminated water sources and inundated rice paddies in Sierra Leone’s ‘rice belt’ region – carrying significant longer-term implications for food security.
Nationwide, high poverty levels, ongoing food insecurity issues and shocks from previous emergencies leave many children and their families especially vulnerable to future disasters and disease outbreaks.
As a result, there is an increased need for improved planning and support to ensure communities’ overall resiliency and bolster the nation’s emergency preparedness for the future.
UNICEF in action
To respond to emergencies in Sierra Leone, UNICEF works with the Government, other UN agencies, Sierra Leone Red Cross and NGO partners to support communities affected by shocks and disasters, and to reduce the impact of future emergencies on child survival and development.
During the EVD epidemic of 2014 – 2016, UNICEF Sierra Leone and its partners played a crucial role in stopping the spread of the disease, through constructing and managing a total of 46 Community Care Centres to facilitate early EVD case detection and isolation, and provide basic supportive care for EVD patients. Additionally, UNICEF supported the Government with the procurement of over US$ 9 million worth of essential medicines, led social mobilization and community engagement initiatives aimed at supporting communities to combat the transmission and impact of EVD, and provided psychosocial and first aid support to thousands of affected children and families across the country.
Sierra Leone has also faced two widespread outbreaks of measles in recent years (in 2016 and 2018), which affected thousands of children. In this area, UNICEF Sierra Leone continues to support Government vaccination campaigns for children across the country, to stop transmission of existing cases and prevent such outbreaks from occurring in future.
UNICEF Sierra Leone and its partners play a crucial role in responding to immediate humanitarian needs during sudden onset emergencies, such as flooding and landslides, through technical and financial support to lead Ministries, the Office of National Security (ONS), and Freetown City Council. Through activated pillars (thematic working groups), UNICEF leads the WASH and Education pillars, and co-leads with WHO the Health and Nutrition pillar together with the respective government Ministries.
During emergency responses, UNICEF Sierra Leone coordinates with the ONS, local authorities and the NGO sector to provide emergency WASH services and essential medicines, non-food items and specialised support to affected children – including psychosocial support, learning materials and child protection services.
Through a social protection scheme, UNICEF provides cash transfers to vulnerable households as a means to improve their resilience to and more rapidly recover from shocks.