Dancing with disasters in Malawi: Tenthani’s Muckracking

Preparedness  is not only individual, but also structural,  making the buildings strong enough to resist  strong ground shakingRenato Solidum

President Peter Mutharika, during his tour to areas devastated by this rainy season’s unprecedented rainstorms and floods, has said more than once that he does not know why the floods have been this vicious.

Mutharika has been inspecting relief efforts
Mutharika has been inspecting relief efforts

Well, as a patriotic citizen, I elect to ease my dear president’s troubles by volunteering information to his executive self as to why things have gotten this bad.

Mr. President, Sir, we have come to this because we, as a nation, have elected to do things we should not have been doing.

I do not want to bedazzle your executive self with gobbledegook, but, you see, Your Excellency, Sir, since the dawn of multiparty politics some two decades ago we – Malawians – have elected to ignore simple things that used to serve us well.

Look, Sir, three decades of dictatorship were hell, no doubt, no one has to apologise for stating that fact. Simple freedoms were too expensive to afford, even the natural freedom to think. Yes, as some of us were growing up, we used to strive to avoid certain thoughts for we were made to believe that some omnipresent figure would be eavesdropping on our idle thoughts.

But if there is one thing we can be excused of if we start being nostalgic, like those Israelis of old who thought “life was better in the slavery of Egypt”, it is the sense of pride as a nation.

Brutally enforced or not, at least Malawians had values.

Look at how protective we were at our natural resources. You could not dream of getting a licence to harvest timber in Chikangawa Forest Reserve or Mulanje Mountain without a verifiable re-planting plan. You cut one tree, you planted three.

And the National Tree Planting Day was a truly national day. Every school and village had a protected woodlot.

But nowadays, despite making the tree-planting event into a national tree planting ‘week’ or ‘month’, the impact is negligible for, as we are planting millions of tree seedlings, millions of mature ones are being harvested unregulated.

All these things are happening despite the country still maintaining the Department of Forestry somewhere on Capital Hill. It is disheartening, for example, to see a major roadblock like Zalewa a forestry officer confiscating one bag of charcoal because the bearer did not pay a bribe while barely a hundred metres from the check point someone is openly selling the same!

Indeed, look at the Bunda Roadblock. As you enter or exit Lilongwe, cyclists laden with charcoal or fire-wood are seen openly riding into the capital with no questions asked. That these cyclists are stripping off Dzalanyama Forest Reserve naked does not mean anything here.

And yet the whole capital city depends on this mountain range for its water supply.

By denuding our forests, hills and river banks we are unwittingly clearing off natural dykes that prevent flooding in the long run.

And just look at where and how we are building our structures. In Blantyre, for example, people have partitioned themselves plots up the once beautiful Soche Hill where we used to admire, in our younger days, the ‘LONG LIVE KAMUZU’ petroglyph.

Somehow some clever anyamata a pa tauni have curved chieftaincies which are demarcating plots to whoever needs them at some nominal fees.

Once you get your plot what you do with it is nobody’s business. You may choose to build a hovel that may only take a rainstorm to flatten to smithereens while others with deeper pockets may put up some real solid structures.

By the way, this is not unique to Blantyre, nor is it only to supposedly protected hills or mountains. Even where land was reserved for expansion of industrial or regulated dwelling areas of cities, towns and districts people are just building anyhow. We have ‘unzoned’ areas in the capital, Lilongwe, for example, haphazardly named with militant names like Baghdad.

Indeed some parts of our cities are supposed to be part of the expanding industrial areas but we are being allowed to build dwelling units haphazardly.

And yet all this lawlessness is happening while we still have whole Town Planning and Estates departments in our city, municipal, town and district councils that have to regulate where and how an individual or company can put up a dwelling or business structure.

Ordinarily these departments have to check whether your plot is legal. If satisfied you acquired your plot legally, they have to check your plan and the type of materials you intend to use for your proposed structure.

These departments, if they are functional, are supposed to inspect every stage of the structure up to completion and occupation.

But look at the structures that were washed down Soche Hill; some were built with unburnt (unbaked) bricks while others were built right in original river paths. Is that not recipe for disaster?

Where were the directors of the Blantyre City Assembly Town Planning and Estates Department? Were they not noticing these illegal structures?

Now we have lost lives and we will lose millions of kwacha rehabilitating these Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). And yet if someone was going to work ‘to work’ we could have certainly prevented these needless costs in life and resources.

To talk nothing about the Lower Shire…the Lower Shire story has become so hackneyed it has become almost boring. Actually every year, even if the rainfall has not been as intense as this season’s, we are bound to have some flood issues.

And yet every year folks in the flood-prone areas always tell the tired excuses that, “We cannot leave these areas because that is where we buried our ancestors”. “Oh, I am a chief, if I get relocated, what happens to my chieftaincy?”

Vice President Saulos Chilima actually expressed frustrations that, as he was visiting them, some of these marooned people actually challenged him with these excuses.

And yet government is in a dilemma: if you tell your wayward teenage son that excessively drinking liquor in sachets is bad for his health and he defies you and continues imbibing and later develops kidney failure and needs expensive kidney transplant, you will be the one looking for the cheapest ticket to India to save his life.

That is why Chilima will take another aerial view of yet another flooded Lower Shire Valley next rainy season if these people do not move to higher ground this time around.

Be decisive, use laws

The Vice President said something about being resolute, tough and decisive about moving people to upland areas. But he was a bit hesitant, if not apologetic, in how government is going to enforce this.

He talked about erecting dykes to make big rivers like the Shire and Ruo behave. We know countries like the Netherlands were build on flat land reclaimed by dykes.

But, while dykes may be a decades-long project, let us do what is practical now: move people upland – by force, if necessary.

Section 8 of the Land Act (Cap. 57:01) of the Laws of Malawi states: All public land is vested in perpetuity in the President.”

Citizens only have the licence to use the land. That is why you find citizens given, say, 99-year leases and pay ground rent to the landlord – government.

The President in Section 8 refers to government. Government has been given, under this law, powers to take away land from any user if the land is required for public use such as construction of roads, dams, schools, hospitals, et cetera. Land can also be taken away from a citizen if the land is required for the conservation of game or forest.

Government is required by law to offer reasonable compensation to the affected citizens. The compensation does not have to be at the commercial market rate, however.

I do not want to bore you with legalese but my point is that government has powers to move people out of any land. Added to that anybody who develops land without planning permission or approvals is amenable to have their structures demolished without any compensation at all. Citizens must, therefore, seek planning permission if they intend to embark on building houses or any structure in areas that fall under planning areas.

Which means that we should not be having houses up the Soche Hill or in any natural water ways in the cities because those places certainly do not fall under any planning areas.

And indeed government has powers to tell the folks in Chikwawa and Nsanje that you cannot dwell in certain flood-prone areas whether you buried your granny there or not. It may sound insensitive but a law is a law. It is not just about being decisive; it is about enforcing – and respecting – the law.

Natural disasters will always befall us; but some disasters are predictable, let us collectively avert them by doing the right things…

…And government should lead from the front in this campaign.

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7 years ago

Very resolute Mr Tenthani, only if corruption was not there.

7 years ago

Thanks Tenthani, with your article I feel well represented. May the good Lord give you extra wisdom and acumen in your authorship career. The article superbly revolves around true patriotism and nationalism. Wonyoza izi ndi m’dani wa dziko la Malawi.

7 years ago

Tenthani is a genius. Some very stupid fellows want to insult him instead of arguing with him constructively. Useless bastards

7 years ago

This should be voted as article of the year… problem, setting and solution all sufficiently given. This is article of the year…

7 years ago

This is just one of those good articles we need! Keep it up.

7 years ago

Bwana Tenthani, you have exactly voiced my concerns. Keep it up and I hope the Govt authorities will do something about the issues you’ve raised.MALAWI, where has our national pride gone? Let us learn from other countries how they plan their cities. Thank you Nyasatimes for highlighting such issues.

7 years ago

no 73 stop attacking personalities but instead counter the issues if they are not making sense or commend the same. iweyo osambawe can you be able to these tangible observations? shupit

7 years ago

I think the right analogy for this article should have been : if a journalist constantly refuses to bath and to stop drinking chibuku should the journalist worry when the readers run away. The journalist in question has been reminded again and again to start bathing and to stop drinking but he never listens. Next year the vice president will again take an aerial view of the journalist carried in a wheelbarrow and having wetted his pants.

7 years ago

While the planning and estates departments are there at all levels, the problem is poor funding, political interference and corruption. It appears Treasury does not value the work of planners so they are poorly funded and in the end, they do not effectively and efficiently. Politicians like cutting corners, even where designated areas are clear to build what, they will choose where they (or their cronnies) want to build anything. Plots and building plans are endorsed during meetings of stakeholders at council levels but secretariat people connive with other stakeholders to pass illegal buildings. City councils are major culprits of… Read more »

Charlie Hebdo
Charlie Hebdo
7 years ago

All land belong to Government. I was therefore surprised that the government couldn’t find land to build MUST and it had to take the late Bingu to donate part of his farm for the purpose. Was Bingu fooling us? Was it the desire to have the university in his home village the driving force behind the donation?

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