Lack of urban disaster risk plans hit


Lilongwe- The vulnerability, to climate change and other hazards, of small towns in low-income nations are often overlooked despite their exposure to environmental hazards and rapid growth observes Association of African Planning Schools (AAPS) and the Southern Africa Society for Disaster Reduction (SASDiR) member Mtafu Zeleza Manda.

Malawi has in the recent two weeks experienced a surge flash of floods cued by heavy rainfall that was worsened by a Tropical Cyclone, which is expected to be succeeded by an even worse cyclone in the next coming weeks.

Floodwaters rising as high as 5 feet have submerged homes and bridges, making access to some areas virtually possible.

Over 300 people have been killed, an estimated 600,000 are reported to have been displaced and some missing. The floods have also caused extensive damage to crops, livestock and infrastructure. The southern districts of Nsanje, Chikwawa, Blantyre, Phalombe and Zomba are the most affected out of the 15 affected districts. Malawi has a total of 28 districts.

Relief and humanitarian organizations have rushed to the sites to help the affected and attempt to halt opportunistic diseases such as cholera outbreaks as well as other waterborne diseases that would thrive on the back of poor sanitary and drainage conditions at both the community and relocation sites.

The floods have disrupted and damaged the country’s water and sanitation systems forcing urban residents to draw water from unprotected wells and boreholes contaminated by the floods and also forcing them to go for open defecation in a situation that has seen flush toilets going for days and weeks on end without water.

The so called elite urban women are now forced to take their time off from work to look for water. In the rural areas, where boreholes and pit latrines have been severely affected, the burden is more for women as they have to spend more time replanting the crops that have been washed by the floods. They also have to gather increasingly scarce portable water and wood.

As it is, government’s drive to meet the Millennium Development Goals on water and sanitation has been drastically hindered.

Manda, a physical planning expert who is also an urban and environment planning lecturer at Mzuzu University also notes that weak adaptive capacity exacerbated by the absence of functional local governments in

Malawi has also increased disaster risks.

“The magnitude of hazards, exposure to the hazards and vulnerability to disaster impacts determine level of a country’s or community’s disaster risk,” says Manda explaining that factors that contribute to hazards are more pronounced in cities “because of the concentration of people and assets and often because of their location in and expansion into hazard-prone areas”.

With rapid urbanization, both globally and locally, attention to the challenge of disaster risks needs to turn to urban settlements, where high densities and settlement patterns can, and do, create vulnerabilities, says Manda.

“Rapid urbanization, especially unregulated growth, can lead to human and property vulnerability to hazards,” points out Manda.

Concurring, Professor Sosten Chiotha, LEAD executive director says it has now come to the attention of development workers that urban areas have become a major concern in terms of disaster risk management.

“There is a lot that needs to be done including engaging cities and town authorities in planning their environment to mitigate disasters especially this time when we are experiencing an increasing number of geological and climate-related disasters,” Chiotha notes.

The Hyogo Framework of Action, the UN’s 10-year plan to build resilience to disasters, and the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction both seek a paradigm shift from “preparedness and responses” to “risk reduction and management”.

Chiotha is of the view that urban councils should take the lead in controlling development and protecting encroachment into hazardous and disaster prone areas.

“The disaster situation in Zomba is a result of neglecting simple things such as improper land allocation by the municipal council,” he says.

Zomba District Department of Physical Planning officer Leslie Majawa acknowledges that while land in the city can be accessed from the government’s department of lands or the quasi-government entity the

Malawi Housing Corporation (MHC), the city council also allocates land in its jurisdiction.

However, Majawa is quick to point out that in practice the largest suppliers of land are chiefs who essentially are customary land holders.

“This is so because to use the normal channel of going through respective authorised institutions it takes years to access land from the formal market,” he says.

He added that the formal market was expensive and riddled with corrupt practices which the poor cannot afford.

As such the affluent have corruptly accessed land even in road and riverside reserves where they have built mansions and business empires defying council guidelines for infrastructure construction and land zoning and allocation regulations.

Majawa observes that the city council in Zomba only controls 10 per cent of the total city area. Close to 45% of land in the city is under customary land holders due to non payment of compensation by authorities when villages were absorbed into the city and a dysfunctional formal land system, he explains.

In Malawi, despite constitutional requirements, the absence of local governments since 2005 has negatively affected provision for urban planning and other services that are arguably the main tools to reduce disaster risks.

Considering the strategic positioning of most of Malawi’s urban centres, Manda feels it is important that any hazards that threaten the towns are addressed as soon as they are noted.

“The aim of drawing disaster plans are to reduce vulnerability and prevent future disasters from floods, strong winds, drought and by creating and sustaining an urban environment whose physical and social development is orderly, coordinated and to appropriate standards,” says the planning expert.

He says, to achieve this, there should be a compromise between mixed development and densification on the one hand and urban sprawl or boundary extension on the other.

Manda suggests that communities should voluntarily agree to be relocated to safe plots than continue staying in disaster prone areas.

The planner further suggests that the country needs to enforce its development regulations, in order to avert situations where local chiefs in urban centres allocate protected or forest land to developers even when the places are considered a future hazard to national development.

This has mainly been so because the country’s national land policy of 2002 recognizes customary land tenure in urban areas and allows chiefs to exercise jurisdiction.

“But to ensure planned development, planners are required to give approved detailed layout plans to chiefs to guide their land allocation activities,” says Manda adding; “Chiefs who fail to abide by these plans risk having their customary powers curtailed and their

customary land converted to public tenure.”

Under the Chiefs Act (1967) s5, chiefs can allocate customary land within the urban area on receiving written permission or confirmation from the urban council, which would be expected to refer to the existing land use plans for the area.

Manda also noted those urban health hazards are more pronounced during floods because like in all towns in Malawi, waste management is neglected.

“Our towns lack solid waste disposal facilities and the existing liquid waste stabilization ponds are inadequate for Malawi’s rapidly growing urban centres,” he observes.

“This neglect increases vulnerability, which could also cause a public health catastrophe during disasters such as floods”.

Chiotha says that it is important to promote community participation during the planning process when organisations and government are conducting disaster risk reduction or management programmes.

“This approach is especially useful as a community vulnerability assessment tool that can be used to promote awareness and training for both the communities and the development workers.” 

February 2015
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