It was raining heavily when Marlene Jimu, 37, went to bed around 7pm on New Year’s eve, but she did not know that she was about to lose her home to flash floods.
Jimu, from Ngomani Village in Traditional Authority Chitukula on the outskirts of Lilongwe City, personifies the chronic tragedy of poor people pushed out of safe urban settlements.
“I had just returned from Msungwi Market in the city’s Area 25 Township where I used to sell maize flour and powder soap. At around 8pm, my daughter told me that rising water was approaching, but I didn’t panic because this happens every time it rains.
“To my surprise, water flooded the house around 9pm. I had to act fast to rescue the children who were fast asleep. We run for our lives, joining neighbours who were fleeing their homes and screaming for help.”
For a week, the displaced families sought refuge at Chipala Primary School.
However, Jimu lost her business to the floods which washed away her money and goods.
“Currently, I’m looking for other means of generating money for my children’s school fees,” she laments, thanking the Department of Disaster Management Affairs (Dodma) for giving affected households assorted items and money to lessen their hardship.
Jimu now rents a house worth K10 000 a month in the flood-prone locality.
Recurrent flooding in cities and surrounding areas confirm that urban settings are not exempted from disasters once associated with rural populations.
In 2017, Lilongwe City Council (LCC) developed a disaster risk management plan to stop a repeat of the floods that hit households along Nankhaka, Lilongwe and other major rivers. However, the plan has not triggered the desired action to roll back disasters and consequent losses.
LCC deputy director for health Catherine Kunje says floods in the capital have become more frequent and devastating in the past decade.
She explains: “Lilongwe started experiencing frequent floods and the impact is getting worse. Urban poverty, which is pushing people to live in disaster-prone areas where they can afford housing, is partly to blame.
“When low-income earners acquire plots from the official landlords in the city—the council, Malawi Housing Corporation and Department of Lands—they sell the land and move to risky locations, including riverbanks, because they do not have the financial muscle to construct resilient homes.”
Kunje heads efforts to keep the city clean. She says settlements mushrooming on riverbanks make it hard for water to pass when rains come. Also to blame is poor waste management in densely populated flood hotspots which has left both natural and built drainage systems clogged with litter the fast-growing urban population churns out.
She explains: “Due to overpopulation in these risky areas without proper landlord, it is hard for the occupants to get waste management services. As a result, they dump waste in the rivers and it restricts the flow of water. This is contributing to perennial floods we have been experiencing.”
Civil Society Network on Climate Change national coordinator Julius Ng’oma says the frequency of urban floods has stimulated talk about gaps in land, environment and disaster management. However, he is concerned with lack of political will to put the laws and policies in use.
“Although we have the disaster risk management plans, there seems to be a problem in implementation and enforcement of what is stipulated in the plans. We are not sure to what extent the councils involved other stakeholders when developing the plans and how they communicate the planned activities with various stakeholders,” Ng’oma says.
He fears that the residents may not even be aware of the risks the city planners identified and their role to reduce the hazards.
Besides, there seems to be low coordination among the city landlords.
Efforts to sensitise the city residents to disaster risks in their urban settlements remain a challenge within the cities where economic inequalities are pushing poor people out of planned zones.
As they live in areas not suitable for human settlement, they blame councils for failing to provide affordable land fit for the purpose. The majority in poverty are worried that every disaster leaves them poorer and tormented.
The National Disaster Risk Management Policy aims to sustainably reduce losses of lives, socio-economic gains and environmental assets when tragedy strikes.