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The Shire Valley: Malawi’s man-made or nature-inflicted humanitarian crisis? Part 1

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By Richard Chirombo:

MAN ON THE GROUND— Homeland Security Minister Nicholas Dausi (right) talks to a flood victim in Chikwawa

Every now and then, officials responsible for disaster management have to make short, anguished trips to districts in the Shire Valley, a place well charted, as far as human disasters are concerned.

Chikwawa and Nsanje, the so-called Shire Valley districts, are so visible in disaster time— which is always in the rainy season— that, compared to other parts of Malawi, they wear their guts on the outside— as depicted through their resistance, which they portray with surplus machismo, to the idea of relocating upland.

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The Shire River, Malawi’s longest and biggest river, flows in the background— perhaps as a symbol of the guts the people wear outside; for the river, which flows mightily in broad daylight, and in thick darkness, is very much a part of the Shire Valley’s story of disaster— laid out like a map of disaster waiting to happen.

For the most part— at least when disaster strikes— it [the river] is blamed for causing floods, which happens when its banks burst.

However, the floods cannot be traced to a single trail, like that [trail] of too much rains; for experts from the Department of Disaster Management Affairs (Dodma) argue that people stay too close to the river.

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So, instead of being a single trail of disaster, the Shire Valley is ‘visited’ by a series of disasters— persistent, almost predictable— that has defined the pathways of Shire Valley people to trouble; trouble being the disasters that have become a tear-evoking part of their story.

The Shire Valley story, for what it is, is a story of agricultural production— its bedrock being the fertile, alluvial soils of the Shire River which nourish crops for replenishment; and livestock, especially cattle, on which residents of Blantyre and other Southern Region districts depend to meet their meat needs— wildlife at Majete Game Reserve; hydro-electric power generation at Tedzani; man-hunting crocodiles; and, of course, floods.

At first, it was the issue of connotation of a name [that question again, what is in a name?] that was the trouble, for the area used to be referred to as the Lower Shire, and politicians such as former Cabinet ministers Harry Thomson, Gwanda Chakuamba and Sidik Mia and parliamentary Committee on Agriculture Chairperson Joseph Chidanti-Malunga did not like that idea.

They said, as Chidanti-Malunga puts it, that calling Nsanje and Chikwawa Lower Shire districts depicts the people as “backward”, ignorant almost.

They won the battle, the politicians; for the Shire Valley is getting more prominent than the Lower Shire.

Sadly, it is the story of persistent floods that continues to put Shire Valley people in the centre of the storm, for all the bad reasons, throwing positive stories such as those of natural resources’ preservation, hydro-electric power generation, food production, livestock production, among others, in the dustbin of petty things.

In the end, the Shire Valley has turned into, not a place but, an abstract mass whose story is tangled in floods-induced death, injuries, displacements and what have you. Not a desirable position for people desiring to portray a positive image of themselves to the world.

Not surprisingly, the people of the Shire Valley have come in for scathing criticism, people criticising them for staying put in a zone that reeks of nothing but trouble: injuries, displacement, death— a people unable to make decisions. Typical Lower Shire people!

But, of course, former veteran politician the late Chakuamba tried to support the people, saying they, simply, could not abandon it as one abandons a lice-infested bed.

“The Shire River provides fertile land for the cultivation of crops and rearing of livestock, supporting the livelihoods of thousands of people,” he said on November 7 2007.

The Shire River, as Lake Malawi’s only outlet, also flows all-year round, making green the grass that lines its path from Lake Malawi to Zambezi River to the Indian Ocean.

The grass is the food that nourishes the bodies of animals such as cattle, which are then slaughtered and consumed in places far and wide.

So, Shire Valley traditional leaders such as Nyachikadza have been refusing to relocate upland. For him, this is because his subjects’ ancestors are buried in the fertile soils that feed the green grass that is food to the cattle that nourishes the health of Malawians that love the Shire River.

In 2001, the government tried the impossible: suggesting that Shire Valley residents who stay in flood-prone areas relocate. In broad daylight, they refused.

This was despite that the Department of Climate Change and Meteorological Services had issued a ‘fresh’ warning’ that, for the umpteenth time, floods would define life for Shire Valley people during the rainy season that would span from November 2001 to March 2002.

The then director of the department, Donald Kamdonyo, said Malawi would receive average to above average rainfall, making floods inevitable, especially in the Lower Shire Valley districts of Chikwawa and Nsanje.

This came after, according to statistics which the Department of Disaster Preparedness, Relief and Rehabilitation— now Department of Disaster Management Affairs— compiled, at least 157,000 households in Chikwawa and 60,000 households in Nsanje were left destitute after floods disrupted their lives the previous year.

That year, floods also affected 12 other districts countrywide, leaving five people dead after houses collapsed on them. Countless others suffered broken bones.

Not to be outdone, crocodiles, which always lurk in the waters, attacked and skilled dozens others in the valley.

That is the story of the Shire Valley when the country’s biggest and longest river, the Shire River, overflows; it washes not only livestock, people, houses and crops but also crocodiles that head for riverside villages.

The floods expose people and livestock that survive collapsing houses and raging waters to death at the hands of crocodiles, a painful ordeal considering that the mouth of a crocodile has long teeth.

But, still, Nyachikadza and Chief Joseph Kwenje of Sekeni 1 Village in Chikwawa, where most houses were destroyed in 2001, refused to move an inch on the issue of relocation.

“This village has fertile land, on which we grow maize, sorghum, bananas, pumpkins, Irish and sweet potatoes, among others.

“For example, we harvest maize twice a year because of the rich alluvial soils. Our maize flourishes without chemical fertilisers. The Shire River is God-given and our crops are our life-blood,” he said.

In the name of life-blood, they lose their blood to the raging floods, until, maybe, the last individual standing drops his last drop of blood— if not to a collapsing house or drowning, at least to a crocodile.

It is a man or woman dying for the land he or she loves; just that death, instant and— in the case of a crocodile attack— painful comes in time of peace.

To 34-year-old father of four Michael Lufeyo, a resident of Thabwa in Chikwawa, there is no way they can relocate.

He says, in 2002, the then Environmental Affairs minister Thomson and the then district commissioner Kiswell Dakamau both tried to reason with him and other villagers to move upland. They failed.

“We nearly stoned them. You see, people often talk about the need to move out of here, our fertile land, but the places they identify for us are worse off than this place. The areas they suggest, including Dyelatu and other places, are dry and less fertile than this place. We will never relocate,” he said on March 11 this year, even as the Blantyre-Chikwawa Road was cut off at Domasi in the district, leaving transporters and business persons grounded for days on end.

But, as former commissioner for Disaster Preparedness, Relief and Rehabilitation Lucius Chikuni once said, the only solution is to relocate.

“It will be difficult to convince donors, every year, to release funds for relief aid when the permanent solution would have been to move the people upland,” he said back in 2001.

That is why, about 17 years later, Lufeyo is still staying on a floods-battered two-hectare piece of land close to Domasi.

Pattern

The Global Framework for Climate Services Adaptation Programme in Africa has been predicting, since 2013, that rainfall patterns in Malawi and other Southern African Development Community member states would be tottering between normal and catastrophic.

That is why, between then and now, it is either La Nina or El Nino, affecting, positively or negatively, the country’s agricultural seasons.

No wonder, “previous spells of El Nino greatly affected field production,” Department of Climate Change and Meteorological Services Director, Jolam Nkhokwe, observed.

The problem is climate change-related and the solution, according to Natural Resources Minister Aggrey Masi, lies in controlling green gases emissions.

He says climate, per se, is not the problem; the problem is drastic changes in climate.

Climate, he observed, is a variable resource that drives economies through hydro, thermal and solar power but even these can be affected by changes in climate.

Another solution, of course, is relocation, an idea Director for Humanitarian Response at Dodma, Paul Kalilombe, supports as a long-term solution to perennial floods.

Fortunately, while those in the Shire Valley continue to snub the idea of relocation, others in equally flood-prone areas are ready to do so.

Other than Nsanje and Chikwawa districts, one of the districts have have fallen prey to persistent floods is Mangochi, where people in Chikundo, Nansenga, Chipala and Mtiyala villages, Traditional Authority (T/A) Mponda, as well as some parts of T/As Chimwala, Namavi, Chowe, Chilipa and Makanjira have become more-than-one-time victims of floods.

Since the onset of the seasonal rains in November 2018, 15,000 households have been negatively affected in these areas, according to Dodma records.

It is the fifth time— meaning, fifth consecutive year— the households have borne the brunt of natural disasters, a development Mponda blames on climate change.

We are living in strange days. In the past, disasters were not commonplace, perhaps because we had lots of trees.

“Today, most of the trees have been felled and we are experiencing challenges such as soil erosion, floods, drought and prolonged dry spells. We do not know where to run to,” chipala said.

Of course, his subjects have an idea about where to run to: “Upland, of course.”

It is the voice of Marko Malikebu of Chikundi Village.

There is a problem, though: “I and my family cannot relocate upland because some of the areas identified do not have social amenities such as schools, sanitation and health facilities.

“Besides, we do not have money we can use for building resilient houses. Some of us do not have money for buying pieces of land in safe locations. We need support from the government,” says Malikebu, who has been constructing a new house each year for the past five years, he, said.

Most of the affected houses are built with unbaked bricks.

The challenge, according to Kalilombe, is that Dodma is incapacitated, when it comes to the issue of financing the relocation of, otherwise, stranded people.

This is because his department does not have the mandate to finance relocation of people affected by floods because it specialises in supporting disaster-struck people.

The best it can do is to engage other government departments on the issue.

“We, as a department, would have loved it if the people moved out of these areas because it is a concern for us to be assisting the same people each rainy season.

“However, the issue of relocation is a multi-sectorial issue which needs proper policies by relevant government agencies,” he said.

He said Dodma has, on several occasions, been advising affected people to move upland but most of them claim that they do not have a place to move to, let alone a pillow to put their heads on.

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