There have been huge investments in the energy industry in Malawi in recent years. Of particular interest is the number of filling stations mushrooming across the country.
Apart from usual players in the industry such as Puma and Total, we now have new-comers such as Mount Meru, Petroda, Engen and so forth.
But this has come with safety challenges, with many investors ignoring rules and regulations of setting up and/or operating a filling station and squarely putting the lives of many people at risk.
When you drive in Lilongwe or Blantyre, it is common to see filling stations side by side or under construction.
It’s a new deal in town!
It has been established that many developers first build filling stations and then approach Malawi Energy Regulation Authority (Mera) for an operating licence; hence, compromising on safety procedures.
It is rush hour and on this day, Tuesday, we move around the commercial city of Blantyre. It is noisy and heavily congested in Limbe.
At one of the filling stations in Limbe, over 30 minibuses are packed and they appear not to be refuelling but rather wait for passengers or drop off some.
But imagine, for a second, that someone drops a lit cigarette and the place catches fire. How many lives would be lost?
Though illegal, minibus operators are not only refuelling here but using the place as a bus station. This is against Mera’s regulations.
Petroleum Retailers Association of Malawi Chairperson, Victor Luker, is worried about the safety of people.
“It is a concern because we are thinking about the safety of people because we feel passengers are not aware of fuel flammability. The law is there asking filling station operators not to refuel minibuses while passengers are on board. But once we ask them to abide by the regulation, they simply move on to another retailer who is flexible. In that event, we are losing out customers,” he says.
But are minibus drivers aware of the risk they are putting their passengers and themselves at?
“We pack our minibuses where we are sure we will get customers. Of course, I personally know that a filling station is very dangerous as it catches fire so easily. But I have packed my vehicle here because I cannot find a customer in the depot,” says Semu Mlangeni, a minibus driver from Machinjiri Township.
How about passengers?
Andrea Kapanda, who comes from Bangwe Township but plies his trade in Limbe, says Limbe Bus Depot is more risky in the evening.
“It is risky because robbers take advantage of the darkness to attack us. We at least board a minibus with comfort here at the filling station. We know it is unsafe because a filling station can catch fire any time but our options are limited to the filing station,” he said.
However, Luker blames Minibus Owners Association of Malawi (Moam) for negligence.
He says Moam is failing to stop minibus drivers from operating in prohibited places such as filling stations.
Moam Secretary General, Coaxley Kamange, agrees and talks about efforts being made to address the situation.
“It is just unfortunate that some drivers are still picking and dropping off passengers at filling stations, which are not designated places for minibuses. Ours will be an appeal to the ill-minded drivers to refrain from the conduct. In the past, we used to have posters around town, especially at filling stations, alerting our drivers of the dangers associated with filling stations. Apparently, we will be taking spot checks in all filling stations and any driver found will be cautioned and disciplined,” Kamange says.
However, this is not the only problem that is putting many people’s lives at risk. Construction of filling stations without following proper procedures is another threat to people’s livelihood.
The question is: What role do city and district councils play in land allocation?
Blantyre City Council Chief Executive Officer, Alfred Chanza, says BCC operates under the guidance of Mera, Town Planning Committee and other stakeholders.
“What is important to note is that the committee that was appointed to oversee town planning is independent and it comprises several stakeholders who have their own criteria of choosing or approving places for the construction of filling stations. And number two is that there is no way the council can approve [construction of a structure] without getting technical advice from Mera,” Chanza says.
Mera guidelines stipulate that the authority cannot consider for approval of construction of any retail outlet if the proposed site is located within a minimum radius of one kilometre from an existing operational service station.
But construction would be allowed if a new service station is to be located on a one-way road and has an island between the lanes. In this case, the nearest service station can be located at not less than 750 metres from the existing one.
Again, a filling station should be located at a minimum radius of 100 metres from any public institution such as school, church, market, public library, auditorium, stadium, hospital and public playground.
But this is not the case in Malawi.
The question is: Why is Mera failing to enforce the regulations?
But Mera was not committal to respond to our questions on the matter.
Indigenous Business Association of Malawi President, Mike Mlombwa, thinks it is high time Mera woke up from its deep slumber to control the influx of service stations.
“We are planning a meeting with Mera officials for them to explain to us if the regulations were abandoned. If so, they should place an advert in the newspapers indicating that everybody is free to venture into the business. One thing of concern is that some of the filling stations are being planted close to houses, markets and hospitals. And, as Indigenous Business Association of Malawi, it’s mostly foreigners who are flooding into the businesses, we feel Mera should intervene,” Mlombwa says.
Two years ago, over 200 people died in a filling station explosion in Zambia.
In Ghana, about 150 lost their lives in another filling station accident.
This has never happened in Malawi but with most of the filling stations holding 44,000 litres of diesel and 44,000 litres of petrol on any given day, this could be Malawi’s next disaster in waiting.
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