Malawi is sitting on a time bomb as rivers become dumpsites.
This is common in townships such as the populous Ndirande in Blantyre where floods swept coffins, planks and furniture on Monday.
When debris-infested Nasolo River burst its banks, people who live and trade on its banks wept for their wrecked homes and goods.
“It’s shocking,” says Gloria Majiga, who won the 2021Goldman Environmental Prize for Africa in recognition of her work in support of a national ban on thin plastics, which choke the country’s rivers.
She leads My City, My Space waste management campaign Centre for Environmental Policy and Advocacy launched in Ndirande last year.
However, Majiga is not surprised by the flooding of the tributary of Mudi River, which splits Blantyre City’s central business district.
She warns that Malawi’s population of about 19 million should expect worse disasters with continued environmental mismanagement.
Majiga narrates: “What we saw in Ndirande is what we have been talking about. It is not just about poor waste management.
“Ndirande residents have turned the river into a dumpsite, blocking its flow. Many others have occupied its banks, leaving it without trees and vegetation which slow run-offs. Instead of getting into the ground, rainwater cause floods and destroy valuable goods.”
She wants the government to strictly enforce environment protection laws that prohibit construction works and economic activity on riverbanks as well as production, sale and use of thin plastics that block waterways.
Majiga reckons mass awareness campaigns alone cannot stop a repeat of the Ndirande tragedy but also enforcing dos and don’ts.
She laments: “If you live in cities, you will see construction works everywhere, even too close to rivers, while authorities look the other way.
“The country needs to get serious by enforcing the good laws and policies.”
Ndirande Mountain has lost its thick forests as people construct homes on its slopes.
The water racing from the mountainside wash away diverse waste from riverside settlements and markets along Nasolo.
Some households on its riverbanks channel human waste from shallow pit latrines into the river, a public health concern for downstream communities.
Minister of Forestry Natural Resources Nancy Tembo calls for intensified national efforts to improve waste management as well as to make riverbanks, mountains and other bare landscapes green again.
“I’ve seen the videos on the social media, but I haven’t been to Ndirande. As such, without being insensitive to the loss of those affected, all I can say is that we will continue experiencing such disasters unless we stop building and cultivating crops in buffer zones and disaster-prone areas,” she told The Nation.
According to the Department of Climate Change and Meteorological Services, Ndirande received 56 millimetres of rainfall on Monday –not enough rain to cause flooding if Nasolo was unobstructed.
Chief weatherperson Jolamu Nkhokwe explains: “While the city received a lot of rains for the first time this season, the flooding is just a reminder that we have destroyed trees and other vegetation that slow run-off water to sink into the soil.
“The risk of flooding is worse because we have turned rivers and drainage system into dumping places.”
Namalimwe Ward councillor Gertrude Chirambo, chairperson of Blantyre City Council’s environmental committee, says truckloads of waste end up in rivers as the council only collects 300 tonnes out of 500 tonnes produced every day.
For the past half-decade, the country has witnessed a surge in urban disasters in cities of Blantyre, Zomba, Mzuzu and Lilongwe.