The rainy season in Malawi has left most of the roads potholed and almost unusable. The situation puts engineering into question.
At Illovo Roundabout in Limbe, southern Malawi, there are three roads that offer a pitiful sight—heavily potholed patch-upon-patch surfaces that usually push pedestrians to the edge as vehicles veer in search of passable spots which are waning faster than they are being repaired.
The paved motorways—Livingstone and Churchill-Thyolo— are lying flat with no drainage, a vital watercourse which seldom gets deserved attention and funding when it comes to road maintenance.
“The potholes reflect a widespread pitfall haunting roads both in townships and rural areas. They are hazardous to cars and often delay travellers from their respective businesses,” says Emily Gonani, a Mbayani resident, near the busy roundabout in Malawi’s commercial city, Blantyre.
The Roads Authority and Blantyre City Council (BCC) engineers agree that the rains across the country are “abnormally higher than anticipated”.
According to Malawi Institution of Engineers president Dr Matthews Mtumbuka, high rain volumes leave both rural and urban roads ruined—a common spectacle that puts engineering into question.
“This is worrisome. Every road needs proper drainage because its strength deteriorates when the surface is drenched by rains,” explains the engineer, recommending strict quality certification and regular maintenance of vital roads.
Interestingly, BCC director of engineering Francis Namonjeza agrees that even the drainage system must be repaired prior to the rainy season. Sadly, he says, Limbe is “out of control”, a mark of a “failed town that needs decisive action” to get rid of buildings on the roadside strip meant for drainage.
“At present, the city council is struggling to develop new structures because of maintenance of dilapidated structures such as the Livingstone Avenue and other roads in Limbe which need a complete overhaul. Unfortunately, not all people are willing to pay city rates. The road network is in such a bad state that people don’t see why they should pay the city its dues,” explains Namonjeza.
This creates a chicken-egg situation, he says. Typical of the dilemma, Naperi residents last year threatened to stop paying rates if the council did not maintain their bad roads. Nothing happened.
Head of Malawi Transport Technology Transfer Centre at the Polytechnic, Dr Ignacio Ngoma, says most paved and unpaved roads tend to be waterlogged and prone to run-offs due to poor drainage.
“Heavy rains leave surfaces of unpaved roads too soft and impassable to big vehicles like those that ferry fertiliser to farmers or their produce to various markets. Even tarmac roads can absorb water and get destroyed if the drainage cannot get rid of water quickly enough,” says the engineer, who heads the Southern Africa Federation of Engineering Organisations.
He indicated that standards require roads to be higher than its surroundings with the crown—the middle line—standing 75 cm from the bottom of the drain.
“For years, we have been discussing how to improve drainage system. In town, it could be a result of the way we build. As the population is growing, people are building too close to the roads. Beyond the city, it is all because we are not investing enough in drainage of feeder roads,” he said.
In Blantyre, Tsiranana Avenue and other roads with ragged, waterlogged surfaces and shoulders lying at the same level offer good examples of poor designing, which calls for remedial investment in drainage.
Poor roads are in fact the reason buses seldom go to areas where a majority of Malawians live, says Minibus Owners Association of Malawi secretary Coxley Kamange.
“Even in cities, the roads are pathetic and they require urgent rehabilitation. The potholes harm vehicles at a time repairs have become very costly. Trying to avoid them causes unnecessary congestion and delays,” says Kamange.
He thinks gravelling or tarring the pitiful roads could spur the transport sector to stop discriminating about 80 percent of the country’s population—the rural dwellers.
This is no news for the Minister of Transport and Infrastructure Development Sidik Mia. He pledged to start addressing the situation two years ago.
Mia said in February 2011 that “newly built roads should take between five to seven years before they are rehabilitated—a stand squarely discredited by potholes on the one-year-old Chitipa-Karonga Road which Roads Authority attributed to poor handling of a truck breakdown.
On maintenance, the minister assured Malawians at the launch of an upgraded road in Kuntaja, Blantyre, that government will ensure that all roads are passable so that people can do business without hassles.
“The project will continue in the coming years to ensure such roads are in good shape,” said Mia.
Two years on, need is mounting to act on poor roads that make the business climate grim.
Ironically, some communities are cut away because of avoidable delays in construction of better roads. This is the tale of stretches of Zomba-Jali-Phalombe-Chitakale, one of the roads whose funding was approved by Parliament in June 2012. According to the Transport Ministry, the road has delayed due to lack of funds—and government will have to cough about K1.1 billion for the project initially budgeted at K550 million.
Of the 13 roads approved by Parliament, Thyolo-Thekerani-Muona-Bangula is nearly impassable. Travelling on the road that cuts through the highly agricultural area, locals mince no words that it is a setback on their livelihood.
“It has become difficult and costly to take our produce to markets in Thyolo and other areas. We usually sell our maize, fruits and beans to vendors at give away prices,” says Enelesi Chithope whom we met at Thekerani. The road dissecting the steep slopes of Thyolo can be slippery and impassable that residents warn motorists to sleep over when it rains.
At Muona in Nsanje, T/A Mlolo, Nsanje North Member of Parliament Frank Viyazgi and district health officer Dr Medson Matchaya agree that the flood-prone feeder roads are a let-down to delivery of quality healthcare services, including the retention of qualified health personnel.
“Some women give birth at home and others on the way,” says T/A Mlolo. Ministry of Health figures show poor road networks connecting locals to health centres contributes to the death of 675 women out of 100 000 live births.
Apart from saving lives and powering economies, rehabilitation of roads can bring life into the country’s economic recovery plan (ERP). All mid-term priorities—energy, tourism, mining, agriculture, transportation and information technology—depend on good roads.
Interestingly, government promises to construct, rehabilitate and upgrade roads, including those vulnerable to climatic variations and run-offs. Fulfilling the promise is a no less important as government grapples with other pressing setbacks such as scarcity of forex, fuel and essential drugs.
Last month, findings of Malawi Confederation of Chamber of Commerce and Industry (MCCCI) Business Climate survey indicated low confidence in the country’s transport system, calling for remedies to make it efficient and cost-effective.