Before Sierra Leone’s capital of Freetown exploded into a sprawling metropolis – eating up forested hills and encroaching on the Atlantic – Eugenia Kargbo fell in love with the pristine beaches and lush forests that once covered the city and for its lush landscape.

Ms Kargbo, who grew up in the capital in the 1990s, wants the city to see those sights again. And as Freetown’s first Chief Heating Officer, a position created in 2021, he has a seemingly impossible mission: to help combat rising temperatures and other climate changes to make the city green and livable again . These disruptions, along with decades of uncontrolled urban development, have made the capital prone to deadly landslides and annual floods, accompanied by heat waves almost all year round.

“The heat is invisible, but it is silently killing people,” Ms. Kargbo said in an interview on one of the top floors of Freetown’s city hall, a huge air-conditioned building that houses dozens of informal settlements in the tiny western capital. is located above. African nation.

“The children are not sleeping at night because of the extreme temperatures,” she said. “It affects their ability to learn and their parenting productivity.”

But this is a city of 1.2 million people, where up to 60 percent live in makeshift shelters made of corrugated iron roofs and walls that turn the place into an open-air oven for much of the year. The country is one of the poorest countries in the world; Some have air conditioning; And there isn’t nearly enough money to finance the ambitious reforms, Ms Kargbo said. Where does one start?

Ms Kargbo is going for near-term reforms first. “People are suffering now,” she said.

Ms Kargbo, 35, a mother of two, was a child when Sierra Leone was plunged into a decades-long civil war that has killed at least 50,000 people. She studied at the University of Sierra Leone and Milan and began her career as a banker.

As she began to raise a family, Freetown began to suffer from hot days and other weather-related disasters, and Ms. Kargbo was drawn to a role in government. In 2017, a landslide on the slopes of the capital that killed more than 1,100 people served as an “eye-opener to the problems we face”.

Ms Kargbo’s portfolio as heat officer is part of a wider plan known as “Transform Freetown”, which has been supported by her boss, Mayor Yvonne Aki-Sawyer. His position was created and funded by the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center, which is based in Washington. Atlantic Council,

Ms. Kargbo said she wants to raise her son and daughter, now 11 and 8, in a city with parks and public fountains. She envisions a greener, cooler Freetown, where the unspoiled beaches she walked on in her youth are protected rather than subjected to illegal sand mining, and where trees, once a solace, grow more Instead of being cut down for the construction of houses, it is preserved.

“Freetown was beautiful, and I saw the beauty disappearing,” she said.

As a heat officer, Ms. Kargbo has set up some public gardens that provide little oases of refreshment to the elderly while sipping tea under the shade of trees. His office has also installed umbrellas in outdoor markets to protect vendors selling fish, meat and vegetables from the scorching sun for long hours. She wants to provide buildings with white roofs that reflect rather than absorb heat, install public fountains and plant many more trees.

Ms Kargbo is also in charge of the city’s sanitation policies, and has pledged to replace most of the city’s illegal dumping sites with green spaces.

But whether she will be able to do it all remains an open question.

Extreme and prolonged heat can debilitate the body; Some of the far-reaching effects of extreme heat are already taxing in much of the world.

Freetown has an equatorial climate that brings little variation in temperature throughout the year, with hardly any respite at night.

Average temperatures range from the mid 70s to high 80s, with regular peaks in the 100s and 110s. There were more than 30 days in 2020 with all-day average temperatures above 81 degrees Fahrenheit. but by 2050Nearly half of the year’s high temperatures are expected, according to the city. predictions by London-based consultancy Vivid Economics.

In Kru Bay, a township of 18,000 residents just half a mile from Ms Kargbo’s office, families often sleep outside because it is too hot inside their homes at night.

“Last summer many people in Europe realized that global warming was happening now, but here we have been seeing it for years,” Ms Kargbo said.

Ms. Kargbo is one of Seven Women were appointed Chief Thermal Officers by the Arche-Rockefeller Foundation on four continents. Program director Cathy Baughman McLeod said she hoped Ms Kargbo’s work would be replicated in other African countries.

Ms Bateman McLeod said, “This role or something like it will come up everywhere, because leaders will need to take visible, concrete action to protect people.” “Eugenia is the face of summer.”

But for the time being Ms. Kargbo’s work and salary depend on foreign exchange. Financial institutions, such as the World Bank, United Nations agencies and private partners, pay for his projects.

Kenyan environmentalist Wanjira Mathai said “city councils in Africa are not well-equipped to deal with important but not always obvious phenomena” such as rising temperatures or urban heat islands, calling Ms Kargbo’s work “remarkable”.

Last fall, Ms. Kargbo was enlisted As one of the 100 Rising Stars by Time magazine. And she is working on a blueprint for other African cities to deal with the heat.

However, critics say this may only have a limited effect because the problem is too large for any one official to tackle alone. From uncontrolled sand mining on beaches to mudslides from hillsides, “Freetown is a geologic threat that cannot be fixed,” said Alhaji U. N’Zai said.

On a recent afternoon, Ms. Kargbo walked unrecognized into Congo Market, one of the city’s largest markets, where city workers have installed about 40 canopies made of plexiglass roofs to protect vendors from the heat. Many people around her were unaware that she was behind this initiative.

Ms. Kargbo’s boss, the mayor, was more typical, Ms. Aki-Sawyer, who arrived at the market in an air-conditioned car and was greeted by hundreds of passers-by as she rolled down the window – the air conditioning was still on.

Umbrellas were not available to all the vendors. Many shelter from the sun under beach umbrellas covered with black plastic bags.

“Why is some covered and others not?” Mavel Dixon, a 45-year-old vendor, asked, wiping sweat from his brow and pointing to his stall.

Another project backed by Ms Kargbo that has attracted headlines is a plan to plant one million trees by the end of 2022. The initiative has been named “Freetown the Tree Town”. But a lack of funding has slowed the effort, with only 550,000 trees planted. 450,000 of them have survived.

Ms Kargbo said the city’s challenges in dealing with the heat problems were compounded by the fractious relationship the government has with the administration of Ms Aki-Sawyer, a former accountant who is in the opposition.

“The root causes have not been addressed: trees are still being cut down in Sierra Leone, houses are still being built on mountain sides, people keep using garbage to encroach on the sea,” she said . “We get very little funding from the government, but when a disaster strikes, people turn to us.”

Ms Kargbo said, for now, the intense heat makes daily life in Freetown unbearable for many residents, with reports of heat stroke, dizziness and kidney ailments. The weather can also spoil the mood.

“I also pounce on people when the temperature is high,” she said. “We don’t pay attention to it, but the heat incites violence.”

Joseph Johnson contributed reporting.

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