An interview first published by the UN Environment Programme
Freetown Mayor, 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.
We are still dealing with the pandemic and cities are very much on the frontline. Can you tell us what kind of challenges you’re facing in Freetown?
Numbers are low here. We just have over 800 confirmed cases in the city, about half the numbers in the country. But the outbreak has meant that people have been nervous about using health facilities. It’s a risk because health conditions, which otherwise would not have been as challenging, are becoming problematic.
The other thing is the impact on the economy. Much of our economy is import-led, so restrictions on commerce mean not being able to get things in as supply chains are disrupted. 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. This led to increases in prices of fresh produce in markets in Freetown.
We are trying to implement preventive measures in a city where there is a great informality, particularly informal housing; Freetown now has up to about 74 informal settlements. 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.
Can you talk a little more about this response plan?
We are looking to make sure people take the virus and measures seriously. We also need to make it possible to follow measures like washing hands and wearing masks. We have put over 100 water tanks – some of which come with rainwater harvesting systems – in communities, in health clinics, and in marketplaces. We have distributed about 90,000 locally produced masks to the most vulnerable, with a target of 120,000. We are developing urban farming projects in informal settlements to improve food security and resilience amongst their residents.
Even though scientists warned a pandemic would come, the world wasn’t ready. What does the pandemic tell us about the need to prepare for climate change?
Climate change is on us, and 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. 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 have grown as a result of rural-urban migration. These informal settlements are created along the coast near mangroves, which is destroying the natural habitat, and along the hillside of Freetown, which results in massive deforestation with the result of denuded hill sides. With abnormal rainfall, this leads to flooding.
As part of our response to climate change, we have invested in sanitation and flood mitigation, as our city has been plagued with floods. As the rainy season starts, we do a massive clearance of gutters and waterways. We are also implementing the #FreetownTheTreeTown campaign, through which we aim to reduce erosion and run off, and increase vegetation cover in the city by planting one million trees.
You mentioned a need for infrastructure investment. How does the development of green infrastructure help? And what kind of things are you doing in Freetown beyond tree planting?
Investment in green infrastructure is absolutely necessary: from a biodiversity perspective, from a carbon sink perspective. It is also about how we create our cities so that they are more liveable; green infrastructure has benefits for quality of life.
Moving beyond green infrastructure, sanitation, waste management and the circular economy is 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.
You joined the C40 demonstrating a great climate change effort and commitment. What exactly is your commitment and what exactly is your strategy apart from what you have already presented?
Everyone’s climate change commitment reflects their climate change impact. With us, we 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.
How are you working with the private sector? Are you seeing more awareness and money coming in from businesses?
The cable car investment is a clear example, as there is a business interest in running mass transit. Then there is the flood mitigation project: this year it is paid for with the support of development partners, but before we had support from private sector players. We are launching a new green space, which used to be a big roundabout which was in disrepair, in partnership with a bank. These are examples of collaboration. Even with the sanitation, there will be private sector players and they are private suppliers in every element.
How engaged are local communities? Are people getting the impacts of climate change and changing their behaviour?
We 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.
I would say 90 per cent of what I described has been paid with development funding, but that is not the story we want, that is not the resilience experience as it is not sustainable. How do we build investment into jobs – green and circular jobs – so that we 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?
Let’s talk about how the plan “Transform Freetown” promotes integration across sectors. What sectors are you prioritizing to achieve cross-cutting results?
Our three-year plan for the city is called Transform Freetown. It is four clusters and 11 priority sectors, with the clusters being: resilience, human development, a healthy city and urban mobility. 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.
What message do you have for international organizations in terms of how they can support your and other cities to become sustainable?
When you look at climate change action and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), I believe that implementation happens locally, on the ground. To save our climate and world, we need operational action to be taken, as well, of course, as policies at the national level. The point that is made repeatedly by the mayors I talk to is that city governments need access to financial resources, from the private sector as well as institutional development partners. It is so important for subnational governments to have access to development partner funding directly.
Learn More: UN Environment Programme