Vice-President Saulos Chilima is a candid man. When he speaks, he calls a spade a spade.
Early this year, he told us to stop clapping hands for mediocrity.
Yes, Malawians must demand better services from public officials.
This is why his advice to city councils during the International Day for Disaster Reduction in Mzuzu City should be taken seriously.
Speaking when he graced the October 14 observance, he asked city authorities to strictly enforce by-laws outlawing construction of homes in areas that are unplanned and disaster-prone.
Councils should not treat Chilima’s demands for dos and don’ts with contempt.
He rightly observed that city councils are equally to blame for the mess.
Lax law enforcement is giving rise to sprawling of squatter locations in the country’s cities.
During founding President Hastings Kamuzu Banda’s autocratic rule, Blantyre City Council (BCC) launched a Red Star campaign to facelift or eliminate dilapidated buildings that were giving the city an ugly face.
The initiative was aborted after the restoration of democracy as petty party politics cropped in.
Why the brilliant intervention was thrown into the gas burner is a story for another day.
It was resuscitated by former president Bakili Muluzi’s successor, Bingu wa Mutharika, who clearly admired Kamuzu’s leadership style.
The Red Star campaign may have been sabotaged by court injunctions obtained by owners, but Bingu’s administration demonstrated ample political will to restore sanity in the city.
The campaign should have gone to all cities and beyond Blantyre’s central business district.
The crackdown on undesirable buildings would have made more sense if it targeted undesirable buildings in high density settlements.
This is where thousands of city residents, especially the poor, live.
As the Vice-President pointed out, city dwellers cannot continue constructing their homes in places that are geographically and hygienically dangerous to their lives.
In Blantyre, some residents build houses in the middle of rivers and drainage channels.
Thousands if not millions have also invaded hills—with some settling on mountaintops. Others have encroached graveyards as is the case with Bangwe, Manja and Ndirande. Yet other houses are built on top of sewer and water pipes.
If Chilima has time to spare, he should visit Baghdad slum on the slopes of Ndirande Mountain to appreciate the shocking chaos happening in the city.
It is a ticking time bomb. Most houses are substandard and they pose a great danger to the poor residents often hit hard when natural disasters strike. It also poses health risk.
What is interesting with this slum and many others is that they grew under the watch of council officials who could have blocked residents from building on what used to be a hill.
Most houses do not meet basic structural engineering standards. As former minister of Labour, Youth and Manpower Development Henry Mussa once said, they pose a great risk during natural disasters.
Six years ago, the collapse of what used to house Kips Restaurant in Blantyre, which claimed lives, was blamed on use of poor building materials.
This explains why well planned settlements—especially where Malawi Housing Corporation houses are— experience few or no floods at all.
The safe zones include Nkolokosa, Chitawira, Ndirande Newlines, Zingwangwa Newlines, Soche East, Chinyonga and Kanjedza.
Most disasters happen in unplanned parts of these townships, including Ndirande, Bangwe, Chilobwe, Zingwangwa where floods displaced hundreds two years ago.
The Vice-President, who leads the Department of Disaster Management Affairs, was speaking from his experience.
In 2015, he led disaster recovery efforts when floods killed 106 people and displaced thousands in 15 districts.
He is justified to criticise city councils for sleeping on their job. They need to heed the call and get back to work. Prevention is better than cure. n