What will it take to make our cities resilient to frequent urban disasters?
Certainly, the answer does not lie in making bricks thicker.
Bulky or not, bricks are opening up pits and baring grounds that expose cities to catastrophes.
Visiting populous townships of Blantyre, we saw how brick-makers are depleting soil along rivers and valleys.
In Bangwe, Chigumula, Machinjiri, Chatha and Kameza in Blantyre, gaping pits are deepening where groups have scrapped off top soil meant for agriculture, moulded bricks and erected kilns surrounded by heaps of logs waiting to be burned.
As smoke spiralled from newly burnt kilns and enduring logs were being reduced to ash, the teams were waiting for the bricks to cool down.
In Machinjiri, Knights Noah Tsadoka explained why they keep excavating pits closer to waterways.
“We don’t mould bricks anywhere, but use clay or loam soils which produce quality bricks that do not break easily,” said the 52-year-old.
He also makes the clay building blocks at Nakulenga, Maone and other areas in the vicinity.
A growing scramble for land in the city, with thousands living in buildings that are in disaster-prone river banks and hillsides, have pushed Tsadoka and his team to the borders of townships.
For them, rapid population growth and urbanisation giving rise to sprawling settlements in cities, means big business.
“I started this business two years ago. I am not employed. I have no skill. I mould and sell bricks to support my wife and five children,” he says, ramming a log into a kiln near Mudi River at Maone.
He produces up to 150 000 bricks every dry season.
“When a pit is exhausted, we move to a new spot,” he says.
When it rains heavily, water fills the pits and weakens the walls of the pools, breaking the banks to flood neighbouring settlements.
This was one of the major lessons from floods which displaced thousands in Lilongwe in February.
When Lingadzi River flooded Ntandire, tops of giant kilns popped out in swamped valleys as survivors and onlookers picked goods floating in the flood.
Department of Environmental Affairs spokesperson Sangwani Phiri termed overreliance on burnt bricks as a major environmental concern.
“This is a big cause for worry,” he said. “It should not be encouraged at all. Bricks are consuming forests and exposing settlements to disasters.”
Recently, government announced a hazy push to replace bricks with cement blocks.
But the shift is slow.
According to Phiri, there is no policy and deadline for the desired migration to environmental-friendly, resilient building blocks,
He explained: “We cannot say when bricks will phase out. We are moving at a snail’s pace and the use of cement blocks remains an emerging issue.
“However, it is encouraging that new structures being built by companies and public institutions are made of cement blocks. We need to embrace this wholeheartedly to save trees from going up in smoke and reduce disasters.”
But Erick Sekeyani, who moulds bricks at Chatha in Blantyre, says demand for burnt bricks is rising as buildings mushroom in the city.
“We get many customers, some buying bricks for houses and others for fences as well. We are not scared of the talk about cement blocks. Not many Malawians can afford them,” he says.
Eco Bricks and Blocks Factory Limited is one of the companies supplying building blocks made of cement and sand.
“The cement blocks are better than fired bricks in many ways,” says its marketing manager Kwatha Chitanda. “They are resilient though only a little cement is needed when constructing houses as compared to burnt bricks. They are also time-saving when building as they are big,” he says.
According to Chitanda, the main buyers of concrete hollow boxes, made of cement and quarry dust, include schools, companies and well-off individuals.
“If government bans the use of burnt bricks today, we will save trees and restore vegetation, rivers and soils in just 10 years.”
According to Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development spokesperson Charles Vintulla, government tasked councils to regulate brick-making in their territory.
“This is supposed to be addressed in city by-laws,” he said.
In July, Zomba City Council sounded a warning against activities “likely to cause damage to the environment”, including moulding bricks.
Blantyre City Council (BCC) town planner Costly Chanza says the agenda for resilient settlements is nothing unless poverty and inequality drop.
The rush for bricks demonstrates how urban development worsens environmental degradation, disaster risks and vulnerability.
But banning bricks is not a magic bullet.
“Building resilience settlements include investment in drainage systems, water management and preventing developments in slopes and low-lying areas,” he explained.
“There is need for good urban and local governance to make the strategies work,” said Chanza.
As we left Maone, Tsadoka was still waiting to cash in on his treasured kiln, as the early rains on Friday could signal a rise in prices since prices of bricks soar during rainy season. n