Gone with the floods

In this first entry of the four-part series on urban land use and planning, JOHN CHIRWA looks at how policies have neglected the plight of city dwellers who perpetually face the wrath of disasters.

For the past four years, Malawi has been facing the worst disasters in its history due to climate change. Surprisingly, urban localities have been the worst hit.

Of late, urban areas have been the worst hit by floods

Even experts in disaster management are baffled by this recent trend of disasters, especially those which affected Blantyre, Mzuzu and Lilongwe cities in 2015, 2016 and 2017, respectively.

And Lilongwe City has proved to be the worst hit as floods have persistently been displacing households every year since 2017.

Mervis Sikaona, 58, a resident of Chipasula Township in the capital city, has been a victim of the floods for two consecutive years.

She lost two houses last year. But as she was in the process of rebuilding, the floods have yet again swept away her other three houses this year—dashing off all hopes of eking out a living from infrastructure assets. 

Admittedly, Sikaona has no one to blame because her compound sits along the banks of Chipasula River where a bridge was also washed way with the force of running water.

Surprisingly, Sikaona and several other families on the banks of the river do not harbour any dreams of relocating.

“This is the only land I managed to buy in the city; otherwise, better land in designated plots is very expensive for me,” she says.

Such is the story for 176 families who have already been displaced by the January floods in Biwi, Chipasula, Kaliyeka and Mchesi residential areas in Lilongwe this year.

So far, 24 584 households (approximately 135 212 people) have been affected by the disasters nationwide since the onset of this rainy season, according to the Department of Disaster Affairs (Dodma).  At least 40 people have been injured while 21 have died.

The number of victims is expected to rise as the Department of Climate Change and Meteorological Services (MET) predicts more heavy rains accompanied by strong winds.

Minister of Homeland Security Nicholas Dausi, speaking after visiting the victims in Lilongwe, said the floods are a wake-up call for residents to start adhering to the city council by-laws which bar people from settling along river banks.

“People should start listening to the city councils when told not to build houses in disaster-prone areas,” he stated.

But residents in such disaster-prone areas across the country are resistant to relocate.

In Mzuzu for example, Constance Banda whose house was destroyed by floods in Masasa Township in 2016, argues that the squatter location has been her home even before the city extended its boundaries to the area.

“Unless they say they will give us other plots, then we can relocate. But that has been a song for many years,” she says.

Mzuzu University (Mzuni) physical planning expert Mtafu Manda agrees with Banda’s assertions.

He says it is a preserve for the rich to access prime land and plots in the cities of Malawi; hence, the poor being pushed into the disaster-prone areas.

“It is difficult to access planned land and plots because of procedures and the cost. For the poor the easiest and available land is what they see to be vacant,” Manda says.

Preliminary results for the 2018 Population and Housing Census puts the total population of urban dwellers at about 2.8 million, constituting 16 percent of the total population of Malawi.

The 2008 Census found that 15.3 percent of the national population lives in urban areas, meaning that more people are moving into towns although others argue that it is at a minimal rate when compared to many countries.

Disaster management experts Joseph Moyo says disasters continue to strike urban areas because government and non-governmental organisations have focused much on rural areas; thereby, forgetting urban dwellers with disaster resilience projects.

“We have accustomed ourselves that disasters take place in rural areas like in Nsanje and Karonga.

“But now things have changed. Even cities are being affected because people have blocked drainage systems and streams,” he says.

Moyo says its high time government harmonised its policies to prevent emergence of slums.

“Water boards and the Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi are providing water and electricity to these areas.

“What can stop people from building there? Our policies need to speak one language,” he argues.

Northern Region Water Board (NRWB) director of operations Asumani Ungwe denies legitimising informal settlements by providing water services.

He says the board provides water to areas under the direction of the city council.

“Wherever we provide water, we find houses there. Our assumption is that these are designated areas for habitation. Otherwise, the council advises us not to provide water to a particular area. An example at hand in Mzuzu is at Geisha location,” he says.

Department of Dodma chief mitigation officer Stern Kita says people continue being affected by disasters because they do not heed early warning messages on impending disasters.

As it is, relocating individuals in disaster-prone areas has proved to be a continuous song.

Perhaps the focus should turn to empowering locals to have resilient houses to climate change-induced disasters.

And of paramount importance is for them to heed early warning signs to impending disasters. n

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