FREETOWN (Reuters Life!) - The slopes of Leicester Peak, a protected rainforest on a hill above Sierra Leone’s capital, are a jumble of haphazard development and half-finished villas.
Concrete buildings cluster against a tangle of trees and vines -- a construction site in a forest reserve that supplies the city of Freetown with its water and where building is meant to be banned.
It highlights a common problem across Africa, where efforts to halt forest loss are routinely flouted, often with the consent of a cash-strapped government or corrupt officials.
“There is a huge encroachment,” said Jochen Moninger, who works for the German NGO Welthungerhilfe on a project to preserve the forest. “By the law of Sierra Leone no settlement, no activity is supposed to happen in these areas.”
And house building is the least of the worries facing Sierra Leone’s forests -- which like many neighbors in Africa’s humid, forested belt are being plundered for logs and charcoal or cleared for rice fields to feed one of Africa’s poorest nations.
According to a United Nations report in 2008, the African continent is losing forest at a rate of more than 4 million hectares (9.9 million acres) per year - twice the world average.
Data from the Food and Agriculture organization (FAO) shows Sierra Leone lost 19,000 ha or 0.7 percent per year of forest from 2000 to 2005, as it emerged from a brutal civil war.
Freetown, a rundown, palm-fringed capital with a population of just over a million, has a water deficit of 12 million gallons (55 million liters) per day.
Sierra Leone is one of a number of African countries where deforestation is impacting water supply.
Although the house building on Leicester Peak is outside the main water catchment area of Freetown’s main dam, officials worry it sets a precedent that protected forest can be cut.
“Our efforts have not yielded much fruit,” said Samuel Serry, Sierra Leone forests and agriculture ministry spokesman.
“There is a serious problem enforcing the regulations.”
In Moseh, a village on a peninsula south of Freetown, village chief Foday Koroma said water supplies were getting more irregular and local people were carrying water in jerrycans.
On a continent where rain often buckets down then dries up, trees help moderate the cycle, by slowing run-off and soaking up precipitation to be released later.
“When you take forest off, all (the water) comes off in the wet season,” said Richard Harding, of the UK-based Center for Ecology and Hydrology. “It will all be lost ... out to sea.”
Only 40 percent of a protected forest of 17,482 hectares (43,199 acres) on a peninsula south of Freetown is left, yet a fifth of the nation’s six million people depend on it for water.
Government regulation is weak, and illegal farming, building woodcutting and stone mining have all reduced the forested area.
Scott Bode, a resource specialist in a U.S.-funded program fears severe water shortages if the peninsula loses its trees.
“It’s crazy that there could be water shortages in a country that gets 3,000 mm rain per year,” he said.
Environmentalists say Africa could cash in on carbon credits under a U.N. scheme recognizing the role of trees in fighting climate change by storing carbon, but few countries plan to.
Gabon began working on a plan last year to conserve 80 percent of its forests on the U.N. scheme to reduce emissions from deforestation or degradation (REDD). The African Development bank has created a huge program for the Congo basin, the world’s second-biggest forest.
In Sierra Leone, with much forest already razed, some environmental charities like Welthungerhilfeare (WHH) seeking to create new, downsized protected areas that can be more easily protected. A tender is out for projects to attract REDD money, but they are a long way off working out the details.
“Sierra Leone has not yet developed a national strategy, how to do this REDD,” said WHH official Jochen Moninger.
Editing by Tim Cocks and Paul Casciato