Urban disasters: a challenge to planning in Malawi

Urbanisation has outstripped government’s capacity to provide services and guide urban growth in Malawi, a physical planning expert, Mphatso Kadaluka has said.

“Inadequate and deteriorating infrastructure has exposed urban inhabitants to myriad types of disasters that leaves them vulnerable to inexplicable impacts,” said Kadaluka, a northern region Acting Commissioner for Physical Planning in the Ministry of Lands and Housing.

Kadaluka said Malawi has been ill prepared for fires and other forms of disasters such as collapsing buildings, roads and bridges.

“The only disasters we seem to care most about are floods, drought and earth tremors and quakes,” noted the planning official.  He bemoaned the lack of a proactive stance to mitigate urban disasters which catch authorities and professionals off guard when they occur.

“Urban areas in Malawi are not spared of these natural and human made disasters,” he warned.

Kadaluka said the most common urban disasters were fire outbreaks resulting from faulty electrical installations, illegal storage and sale of liquid fuel. He pointed to the fires at the Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi (Escom) offices, farmers organisation warehouse, Blantyre Flea market, Bakers Pride, Ori cooking oil refinery, Keza building, Ekwendeni market, and the most recent at Mzuzu city main market in April.

“These fires led to disastrous consequences such as loss of goods and services, property, and people’s livelihood,” said Kadaluka.

The official said it was time to view urban planning with a disaster perspective since currently most of the world’s population lives in cities and major urban areas.

Malawi has one of the highest urbanisation rates in the world, standing at 6.3 percent. However, Mtafu Zeleza Manda, a physical planner and director of private urban planning and management consultancy firm Alma Consultancy, says urbanisation, if well managed, facilitates sustainable economic growth and promotes broad welfare gains.

“The rapid urbanisation rate that Malawi is experiencing requires modernisation of concepts and tools to manage urban growth,” said Manda. He proposed that the country must urgently begin to plan for the mitigation and management of disasters.

He cited the 2011 collapse of one of the country’s popular eateries, KIPS Restaurant, situated in the heart of Blantyre, the focal point of the country’s commercial activities, where four people were killed and twenty were injured as one of the disasters that alerted the country to the broad range of disasters to expect.

An investigation by the Malawi Institution of Engineers to examine what led to the collapse of the KIPS building, the loss of life, the rescue system and lessons for the future, indicates surprise at the event, since “the design of buildings provides adequate warning for occupants to escape before collapse occurs,” according to the report.

The Institute also observed that lack of proper coordination on emergency response in Malawi aggravates loss of life and property.

“The poor emergency response may have come about because the City Council does not seem to have a designated officer for leadership for such incidents,” said a report by the Institute. “The office of the Commissioner for Disaster Preparedness, Relief and Rehabilitation indicate that they have had little arrangements with cities” but have coordinators at district level in the 14 districts that are designated as disaster prone areas, according to the report.

Newly elected president for the Malawi Institute of Physical Planners, Costly Chanza, who is also the Director of Town Planning and Estate services in the Blantyre City Council, has noted that “some of the common causes of building collapse are traced to bad design, use of substandard materials and equipment, faulty construction, foundation failure, use of unqualified contractors and poor project monitoring and, above all, lack of enforcement of building codes and economic pressures”.

Chanza urged government to tackle the problem of building neglect by the citizenry through a multi-pronged approach covering legislation, enforcement, support and assistance, publicity and public education.

“To achieve this government must provide and maintain a modernised, efficient and user-friendly statutory building control regime to meet the residential housing development needs,” he said, adding that there is need to foster a building safety culture amongst Malawians so that all stakeholders involved — building owners, occupants, building professional, contractors and workers — must observe building safety.

The engineers institute has meanwhile recommended that each city should establish a collaborative emergency response team composed of the City Council (fire, engineering, planning and administration) along with police, health services (city hospitals and ambulance services), the private sector and others.

“Each city must draw up a disaster contingency plan and elaborate its operations and the responsibilities of different stakeholders in times of emergencies,” it said, prompting cities to design and implement local mitigation strategies and adaptation planning including having a robust building code and sound governance for enforcing city by-laws, including building and planning by-laws.

Charles Mkula is a journalist who has worked for a number of newspapers and magazines in Malawi since 1998. He has also worked as a communications officer for the Secondary Centres Development Programme (SCDP), an urban development programme in Malawi set up with support from the German KfW to support urban development. Since his entry into the development field, Charles has been passionate about advancing rural and urban development in Malawi.

Image: Collapsed KIPS building. Costly Chanza.

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