Disasters are no longer a rural phenomenon. Frequent floods, landslides and hailstorms in cities confirm urban localities are not exempted.
The worst-hit settlements are slum towns, home to almost 2.5 million Malawians escaping poverty in rural areas live.
On January 3 2015, James Chinthenga, 46, witnessed the fall of his mud house as torrents battered Bagdad, a squatter settlement perching precariously on the steep slopes of Ndirande Mountain in Blantyre.
The slum, named after Iraq’s war-torn capital, could not withstand the deluge which killed four people and displaced hundreds in Blantyre’s populous towns, especially Ndirande, Chilobwe and Soche.
Chinthenga offers startling flashbacks of the night of relentless rains in Ndirande: “It was shocking. The rains mercilessly reduced homes to rubble. I heard people shouting for help as rains poured. There was no time to save lives and goods.”
The tragedy personifies numerous uncertainties faced by city dwellers in disaster-prone parts not meant for settlements.
For the past three years, Zomba, Lilongwe and Mzuzu have been ravaged by urban disasters which are becoming frequent and costly.
In February, devastating floods killed four people in Mtandire—with 15 miraculously plucked from rising waters using a military helicopter—in February.
In the marshy shanty location, Alfred Bester Phiri, 48, was one of thousands who suffered the shock of their lives when floods destroyed their homes.
His life just got worse as he now lives in a makeshift house likely to fall in case of another flood.
“Onlookers scorn me for staying in this house, but life is worse elsewhere. I’m here because this is the only place I can afford,” he says.
In the capital, where strong winds damaged homes, shops and office buildings three weeks ago, the family of Jafali Amidu is well known.
The 42-year-old painter, whose twin sons were heroically rescued from the Mtandire floods, now rents a low-cost house near an evacuation centre where they lived for months after floods ruined homes in Mtandire.
Lilongwe City Council (LCC) wants them to relocate to safer locations.
“Settling in such areas puts lives and property at risk in the incident of floods. As the rainy season is almost here, we advise all those who settled in flood-prone areas to move to higher ground for their own safety,” says LCC spokesperson Tamara Chafunya.
To the low-income city residents, the shanty towns remain their inescapable home despite the traumatising loss of property and lives.
They find land too costly and inaccessible to the poor, accusing authorities of prioritising the rich while the poor keep counting the losses—wrecked homes, businesses and livelihoods.
They are going nowhere for now—for they cannot afford plots in planned residential areas.
The same old story repeats itself in Mzuzu where almost 17 000 people were displaced by mudslides and floods on April 7 2016. The effects of heavy rains killed seven in Masasa Township.
Residents of affected towns—Chibanja, Chibavi, Salisbury Line, Ching’ambo, Chiputula, Zolozolo and Mchengautuba—have not relocated to safer places.
Inequalities, when it comes to access to land, have pushed them to dangerous margins of the cities.
Despite constant pleas for relocation, Chinthenga, Phiri and Amidu say they cannot relocate because plots in designated settlements are unaffordable and inaccessible to the poor.
Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development spokesperson Charles Vintulla rightly notes that there are several risks associated with unplanned and illegal settlements mushrooming in river banks, mountainous places and marshes.
“These places are prone to flooding, siltation, landslides and other nature-related accidents that claim people’s lives. Such deaths could be prevented if people do not effect such unplanned settlements and developments,” he says.
Blantyre City Council (BCC) town planning and estate officer Costly Chanza says that he feels bad to see people settling in the hills of Soche, Ndirande and Michiru but the city has no land to allocate to more people.
“Our target as a council is to provide land to low-income people as opposed to government which sells land to rich people for bigger development projects,” he says.
But government requires people in fragile areas to relocate to safe areas designated for human settlements, says Vintulla. n