The unbridled disdain of and disregard for city by-laws by some citizens can aptly be described as the cause of loss of over 75 percent of lives to Tropical Cyclone Freddy in Blantyre this week. Callous as such a statement may sound to some when people are still mourning the loss of their loved ones, the hard truth is that this is precisely the case.
Nature is hitting back and exposing the folly and underbelly of throwing caution to the wind by cutting down trees and building in undesignated places such as hills, hill slopes and in and along river banks.
The deaths, damage to houses and loss of property in Blantyre come at the back of two similar calamities that occurred in December 2017, in Blantyre and on March 4 in Lilongwe, albeit at a smaller scale.
Visiting flood prone areas in Soche and Ndirande townships following the onset of rains on December 23 2017, Vice-President Saulos Chilima ordered Blantyre City Council on that day to demolish the illegal structures that 61 encroachers had built around Soche Mountain to reduce the occurrence of flooding.
Chilima also ordered the Blantyre City Council and the Malawi Housing Corporation (MHC) to vacate an injunction the 61 encroachers had obtained from the High Court restraining the authorities from forcing them to vacate the illegal settlements. At that time, BCC promised to relocate the encroachers to Mchinjiri Township. But that was never to be. The advice fell on deaf ears.
There is more to it than meets the eye. Local chiefs have been cashing in on the injunction as not only did the encroachers stay put, but thousands more people have bought ‘land’ from the chiefs. It has turned out that the injunction, obtained over a decade ago, still stands.
Three months later, on March 5 2018, the same Vice-president visited residents of Ntandile Township, Lilongwe who had been affected by flooding of Lingadzi River. The flooding occurred when the river burst its banks and destroyed 138 houses affecting 638 people. Countrywide the floods in that year also hit 20 districts, killed 16 people, affected 17 585 households and 96 000 people.
Chilima also ordered the demolition of houses in and around Lingadzi and other river banks as one way of combating flooding, loss of lives and property. The VP said the problem was that people had and were building houses “not even on the river banks but right in the river”. He asked the Lilongwe City Council to demolish the illegal structures. Someone can check for me if that there has been compliance to that order.
As Lingadzi River bank was bursting in its seams, leaving a trail of deaths and destruction in its wake, some 320 kilometres or so down south, Blantyre, which has been a worse culprit, was sleeping. In the commercial city, thousands of people had also built along river banks, in hills, on hill slopes of Soche Hill, Ndirande and Machinjiri.
In truth, on those two occasions, Chilima did not only speak to LCC and Blantyre its residents, but to the whole country underscoring the importance of avoiding erecting structures in undesignated areas. But as is always the case, no one heed his advice.
It is therefore fair to say that the blame for the current crisis in Blantyre should not only be heaped on BCC alone, for not vacating the injunction. Equally to blame are chiefs and politicians in successive governments after the encroachers obtained the injunction.
Chiefs have been cashing in on the sale of plots to encroachers. If the chiefs had cooperated with BCC and the Malawi Housing Corporation, and stopped selling plots in Soche Hill, no one would have continued building in the mountain and hill slopes. But chiefs represent votes during elections, so politicians who want votes would rather not mess up with them. Successive governments have thus been giving the local chiefs free reign.
It is the same way street vendors are also given a free reign. All administrations have failed to permanently kick them out of the streets. There can be running battles between the city fathers and vendors today. But as we inch closer to elections, no one will want to mess around with them. They become hot property to cherish and preserve for the voting day. It is against this wanton disregard for by-laws and lawlessness in general largely emanating from lack of political will to enforce them lest the ruling party loses votes that today we are in mourning. It is sad that hundreds of the dead are innocent victims—women and children—on the fringes of decisions either by their parents’ intransigence or selfish and rock-ribbed chiefs and politicians who have been cashing in on sale of the illegal parcels of land on the mountain and river banks. But as a nation we can do better. Indeed as someone once said “we learn when we are dead”.
The post The things we learn when we are dead first appeared on The Nation Online.