Malawi is sitting on a ticking time-bomb that is illegal settlements; a phenomenon which puts people’s lives at risk and contributes to environmental degradation. But Mother Nature has a way of hitting back at its irresponsible sons and daughters. Recent disasters that struck some parts of the country can partly be apportioned to the raw wrath of vengeful nature. In this FRIDAY SHAKER, EMMANUEL CHIRWA delves deeper into the housing problem to establish what drives people into illegal settlements in urban areas and why the authorities are indifferent to these eye-sores.
To Samson Sauzande, it was just like any other night in the rainy season. Being close to Lake Malawi, strong winds or storms are not strange phenomena. The hailstorm started at around 3am. Unsuspecting any harm, villagers slept soundly in the comfort of their homes.
But a few hours later, disaster struck. Within a short time, mourning resounded and echoed around the hilly and rough terrain of Tchalo; a fishing community in Rumphi District. Lives had been lost and property swept into the lake.
This was the fate of the people of Tchalo. Strong currents of water that carried massive rocks washed away houses, killed three people and five are still missing.
The missing people are believed to be buried under massive rocks. With the nature of events, it is apparent that the village was washed away by flash floods.
A similar scenario faced Blantyre’s Chilobwe Township residents, who have settled at the foot of Soche Hill. Flash floods that hit the area led to mud slides that displaced 168 people.
It is common now to hear that people who settle in illegal places face natural disasters.
As Traditional Authority Mwamlowe of Rumphi puts it, most of the illegal settlers found themselves in these places because it is the land of their ancestors and they have lived there for decades.
“We can’t blame people who settled in these places. These pieces of land belonged to their ancestors. They have lived here and it is here they call home,” he said.
People like Sauzande claim that disasters they face now were non-existent a few years ago.
However, it is clear that human activities have tremendously led to devastation of natural resources, resulting in disasters.
Mwamlowe said farming and charcoal-burning were among the activities that have contributed to deforestation.
“With population growth comes the need for farm-land and energy for household use. This has resulted in the loss of vegetative cover; hence, the land is bare and nothing holds running water,” he said.
Many sectors have called on people who settle in these undesignated and disaster-prone areas to relocate but the move faces resistance.
Mwamlowe said relocation was a welcome idea, but people find it hard to move because of the financial resources they generate in the areas.
“For example, my subjects in Tchalo earn a living as fishers. So, if they are to relocate to safer areas where agriculture is the main economic activity, it would be hard for them,” he said.
Group Village Head Chilobwe of Blantyre seemed to concur with Mwamlowe, saying people are adamant when asked to relocate.
He said people do not heed warnings on settling in illegal areas which are at risk of disasters.
“Some insolently reply that they have lived in these areas without anything happening and those who fall victim to the disasters are just unfortunate,” Chilobwe said.
But Evance Ekiloni, one of the people who settled at the foot of Soche Hill, said relocation is only feasible where there are tangible alternatives.
“I settled here because the price of the land was cheap. Had it been that I had enough money to afford land in safer places, I could have done so. The problem is that people who are saying that we should relocate are rich; hence, they do not understand our predicament,” Ekiloni said.
Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) indicate that affordable housing is key to development and social equality.
The United Nations (UN) estimates that 1.6 billion people have inadequate housing, with one billion living in slums across the world.
Mzuzu City Council Public Relations Officer, Macdonald Gondwe, said lack of sanity in issuing pieces of land is the major problem leading to escalation of illegal settlements in cities.
He said there was no coordination among chiefs, Malawi Housing Corporation, Ministry of Lands and city councils as landlords.
“Often times, chiefs sell pieces of land anyhow. As a result, places that are primarily not for habitation are sold for settlement,” Gondwe said.
The Department of Disaster Management Affairs (Dodma) looks into issues of resilience to disasters.
The department said relocation, though a good move, is the last resort in disaster risk management, adding that the government would not rush to do so without proper assessments.
Dodma Public Relations Officer, Chipiliro Khamula, said relocation was in two categories; voluntary and forced, which is done in areas that are inhabitable.
“Before we move people, we have to make sure that there is adequate land in the areas they are being moved to, their livelihoods can be sustained and that they have access to social services.
“The idea is that communities should build structures that can withstand the impact of hazards such as landslides, thereby building communities’ resilience to disasters,” Khamula said.
He said Dodma together with Lands, Housing and Urban Development Ministry were conducting a hazard-mapping and zoning exercise to determine areas that are at high risk.
At continental level, Malawi is part of 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which seeks to spur socio-economic growth by the year 2013.
African countries, Malawi inclusive, also committed to implementing the African Union Agenda 2063, which is both a vision and a plan to build a more prosperous Africa in 50 years.
At the global level, Malawi is a UN member State, meaning that it is obliged to fulfil goals set out in SDGs.
These include SDG 1, which seeks to eradicate all forms of poverty.
According to the UN, while the number of people living in extreme poverty dropped by more than half between 1990 and 2015— from 1.9 billion to 836 million – too many are still struggling for the most basic human needs.
It adds that, globally, more than 800 million people survive on less than K913 ($1.25) a day.
SDG 11 acknowledges that more than half of the world’s population lives in urban areas. By 2050, that figure will have risen to 6.5 billion people – two-thirds of all humanity.
However, leaders are doing something about the problem.
For example, Africa’s housing ministers who met in Rabat, Morocco, in September 2011, under the auspices of the African Ministers Conference on Housing and Urban Development, outlined new policies for housing and urban development across the continent, in line with the ‘cities without slums’ initiative they originally adopted in 2005.
According to UN-Habitat estimates, 200 million people in sub-Saharan Africa were living in slums in 2010, or 61.7 percent of the region’s urban population, the highest rate in the world.
North Africa had another 12 million slum dwellers, which was 13.3 percent of its urban residents—the lowest rate in the developing world.
The lack of adequate sanitation, potable water and electricity, in addition to substandard housing and overcrowding, aggravates the spread of diseases and avoidable deaths, according to a recent report of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
In its attempts to address challenges associated with the proliferation of illegal settlements, Malawi Government last month approved the Urban Planning Policy.
In approving the policy, Cabinet committed to ensuring proper enforcement of physical development in cities and towns of the country.
Assistant Communications Specialist for the Land Reforms Programme, under the Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development, Charles Vintula, said the policy would help the ministry control how to plan the country’s urban centres to avoid illegal developments.
He said the country wanted its urban centres to be properly planned and that all the physical developments should follow town planning provisions and physical planning layouts of the Ministry of Lands.
“We want our urban centres to be properly planned and that all the physical developments should follow town planning provisions and physical planning layouts that the Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development facilitates and monitors,” he said.
Vintula said the Land Reforms Programme wants the policy to be followed by all prospective developers in the country.
He said the two policies were ready to be implemented, adding that, by the time they took the policy to Cabinet, they had consulted stakeholders.
“If followed, the policy will make it easy for water, electricity and other service companies to maneuver around the city.
“Construction of roads and other infrastructures has been facing challenges due to poor planning of our cities and towns. Again, you will see that service providers like water boards and Escom [Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi] will be easily reaching homes with their services,” he said.
While the country is working on ensuring disaster resilience, it is obvious illegal settlers are on a time-bomb that is ticking unless swift action is taken faster.
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