In Ndirande Township in Blantyre City, houses have dotted either side of Nasolo River from Mpembu, through Chakana down Makata all the way to Goliyo.
As early as 1996, people settled on the periphery of the longest river in Ndirande following pressure for land in the township.
James Maloya, 57 is one such resident who built his house just a stone’s throw from the river in a place known as Ku Mizimbe by the people there as the place used to be a dambo area where people cultivated canes.
Just like many other settlers along the river, Maloya acquired his land from some people who claimed ownership of the plots as they called themselves mbadwa.
“I bought my plot at K3 000 in 1996. The land used to be cheap along the river. By then I was working for David Whitehead and Sons Limited,” he says.
Maloya said he quickly put up a structure using mud and unburned bricks.
“I could not afford to buy bags of cement and red bricks for my house. I had a desire to own a house. I was tired of living in rented houses,” he explains.
However, in 2002, Maloya and others along Nasolo River received compensation from government to relocate to other places because Malawi Housing Corporation (MHC) wanted to dig a sewerage tunnel from Malabada (Malaysia) New Lines on the river bank all the way to its outlet.
“I cannot simply just leave here because I have nowhere to settle,” he claims.
Some who received the money bought land away from the river bank. But others, including Maloya, defied the order and remained.
The refusal cost some of them property and lives in 2015 when incessant rains in Blantyre and the rest of the country damaged houses. Some houses were ploughed down by floods rains. The people claim that one house was swept away with alongside its occupant.
Almost the same story is shared by residents of Biwi, Kawale, Chipasula and Kaliyeka in Lilongwe and those who live along Lunyagwa River in Mzuzu.
In Mzuzu, it is a common recurrence to see individuals, industries and other institutions reclaim swamps for various developments. Some have settled along the Lunyangwa River while others have invaded the buffer zones for cultivation.
Architecture and urban affairs doctorate student at Virginia Polytechnic in the United States of America Amos Kalua says Malawi faces such challenges due to its ineffective development control mechanism.
He says corruption is the major contributing factor to the dilemma of development control.
“The system of development control is plagued by corruption at many levels. Once gifts and incentives exchange hands, people may get allocated plots in areas that would otherwise have been avoided.
“In the same spirit, a building inspector who stumbles upon development being undertaken over a marginal piece of land might as well have to look the other way,” he says.
Kalua says authorities also face major inadequacies in terms of both human and capital resources. This potentially renders the task of effectively monitoring development activities in the vastness of the cities a near impossibility.
“There is also the issue of political influence. More often than not, it has been reported that powerful politicians and their connections who have sought to influence the development control process at all levels, including most notably, the allocation of plots and the granting of planning approval. The pressure that these individuals exert on the authorities can only end up in the abandonment of the original plans, however well thought out they might have been,” he says.
As a solution, Kalua says the public, as a key player within the industry, should be widely empowered to question decisions that are made by the development control authorities where things appear to be going south. This would bring about some much-needed checks and balances.
“It appears that there exists very little synergy between the multiplicity of players within the built environment industry. It is important that the little synergy that is there during the production of the City plans goes all the way to the implementation and monitoring,” he says.
For Mzuzu University physical planning lecturer Mtafu Manda, the issue is about lack of report for the mandate of other institutions.
“You will be shocked to learn that some of those people are officially allocated the land parcels by government,” he says.
“So, I don’t expect an officer from Lands Department to prepare a layout plan and then allocate plots when layout planning is the mandate of physical planning department or city councils depending on land tenure situation. But this is happening. What is interesting is that sometimes even the government departments also build informally.”
Other commentators have attributed the scramble for the marginal lands to the rapid population growth in the country’s major cities.
According to the preliminary results for the 2018 Population and Housing Census, Lilongwe City continues to be the biggest city in Malawi population-wise with a total population of 989 318 followed by Blantyre (800 264). Mzuzu City is the third largest with 221 272 people followed by Zomba with 105 013 people.
However, Mzuzu is the fastest growing city in the country with a growth rate of 5.4 percent against a growth rate of 4.4 percent recorded a decade ago. The green city is followed by Lilongwe (3.8 percent), Zomba (2.5 percent) and Blantyre (two percent), states the report.
But Manda dismisses such an argument of linking population growth to the scramble for land in the cities.
“Urban areas in Malawi still have too much land, to link the problems to population boom does not sound logical. Density is very low. A recent plan for Mzuzu proposes to allow plot owners to subdivide their plots and either sell off portion to build more houses. The plan also emphasises building vertically. Unfortunately, developers have some fears to build high and city councils also don’t encourage people to so.
“For example, even new buildings coming after the plan are still only ground level like village groceries. For some reason, each one claims not to be aware even when such buildings are constructed in front of their offices,” he argues.