Since flush floods buried her two-hectare maize field in sand and rocks in 2014, Vick Chiyagwaza has been surviving on relief items, including food.
The 42-year-old, from Mapeza Village near Mzokoto in Rumphi, was among victims of perennial floods in Phwezi, Bale, Jalawe and Chiweta in the least dense district.
Recently, the hillside strip has experienced massive floods, hailstorms and landslides that worsen hunger and poverty.
“We have been hit by floods for four consecutive years and I have lost all the land where I once grew crops. Now, my family is starving. I can no longer afford school fees and basic needs for my children,” says Chiyagwaza.
Peter Mzumara, a youthful farmer in the neighbouring Gonamkhanda Village near Phwezi, is also struggling. He lost a power generator, radio set, blankets, fertiliser and K100 000 to floods which affected 73 households last December.
The district agriculture office indicates that for the past three years, floods have destroyed 127.3 hectares of farm land belonging to 599 families in Mzokoto, Phwezi and Bale.
On the M1 Road, travellers see settlements and mountains and waterways devastated by chronic floods that sweep crops, livestock and other goods into South Rukuru River all the way to Lake Malawi in Mlowe.
Downhill, Mlowe residents scramble for goods washed down shops and homes in Mzokoto, Phwezi and Bale.
The trail of destruction is evident in the vast arable land being turned into sandy stretches in Mapeza and Gonamnkhanda.
Fingers of blame point towards the neighbouring hills, where new homes and crop fields are mushrooming in what used to be thick natural forests.
Rumphi district forestry officer Gift Nyirenda says the area is prone to run-offs due to massive deforestation, tobacco farming and uncontrolled cultivation on river banks.
The department’s “hands are tied” as most fragile areas—even mountaintops and riverbanks—remain customary land, he says.
“Mostly, such land is controlled and distributed by traditional leaders. Actually, people have cut down trees carelessly and are settling in fragile areas,” he explains.
He attributes this to lack of a national settlement policy to guide the locals on where to settle.
Senior Chief Mwankhunikira backs the calls for strict dos and don’ts amid rapid population growth.
“We need a settlement policy that will even guide us, as chiefs, when allocating land to our subjects. Currently, people are just settling anywhere and it’s difficult to question them with the growing populations,” says the traditional leader.
Unregulated settlements expose people to avoidable loss of property and life in disaster zones.
Following the annual disasters, government has been distributing relief items and putting in place measures to mitigate the suffering of affected communities.
Nyirenda says disasters will continue haunting rural population unless the tendency of settling in risky areas stops.
Disaster risk reduction is critical in improving human settlement and promoting sustainable land use and management.
District disaster management desk officer Alufeyo Mhango says it becomes difficult to relocate people from disaster zones in the absence of laws to empower the Department of Disaster and Risk Management Affairs (Dodma) and district councils to relocate communities from undesignated areas.
“The current situation is that everybody can settle everywhere he or she feels comfortable,” he says.
But Parliamentary Committee on Natural Resources, Climate Change and Environment chairperson Victor Musowa says the Land Act gives government the power to stop the emergence of unlawful settlement.
He wants Malawi to learn from Tanzania where they use the Decentralisation Policy to regulate human settlement.
“In Tanzania, district councils have been empowered to formulate by-laws and committees to enforce such laws in communities. Empower every council in Malawi to come up with local by-laws and a committee in the community to enforce,” he says.
Last year, Musowa’s committee visited Tanzania where a bottom-up approach— from village and area development committees to the district council—is bringing sanity in the way settlements emerge.
When he visited flood victims at Phwezi in January, Vice-President Saulos Chilima, formerly head of Dodma, urged Malawians to stop settling in disaster-prone areas.
“There is no government, donor country or organisation that has money set aside to manage disasters, especially where they can be avoided. As such, we need to adopt preventative measures by conserving the environment through planting trees and avoiding construction in disaster-prone areas like river banks,” he said.
As change of mindset occurs slowly, Chiyagwaza and his neighbours are waiting for more handouts while shuddering to imagine another spate of floods further destroying their fragile livelihoods next rainy season.