Rampant charcoal production, encroachment of forest reserves and invasion of public land in hilly or swampy areas contribute largely to forests depletion and environmental degradation. According to Lilongwe Wildlife Trust, more than half of the country’s forests and woodlands have disappeared over the last 40 years.
In 2015, all United Nations member states adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity by the year 2030.
The same year, Malawi joined other countries to adopt the Sendai Framework on Disaster Risk Reduction, which equally calls member states to, among others, reduce disaster risks, disaster mortality and losses in environmental assets of people, businesses, communities and countries by 2030. Meanwhile, people continue with the business of charcoal production, encroachment and conversion of forestland as well as other protected areas for settlement and farming.
Floods affect food and energy production
More trees are cut down to meet fuel wood and construction demands. And it is such deforestation that leads to increased soil erosion, reduced crop production, floods, droughts and losses in lives and businesses. Worse still, the trees are cut down without replenishing them.
In his nation address on environment delivered on 19 October, 2020, President Dr Lazarus Chakwera called for drastic measures to reverse the situation, observing that “if not immediately attended to, the adverse effects will defeat our quest for economic growth.”
Chakwera, therefore, committed to come up with a taskforce—comprising experts in water management, natural resources, climate change and mining, among others—to coordinate efforts aimed at addressing environmental issues in a “multi-sectoral approach and aim for specific targets within a specific timeframe”. The Malawi leader stressed the need for a “comprehensive legal framework” to support various interventions.
“Although the review of the Disaster Preparedness and Relief Act was finalized, what we also need is to fast-track the completion of the Disaster Risk Management Bill. A law to regulate some of the practices that have often led to disasters is a matter of urgency. My Administration will present that Bill during the next sitting of the National Assembly,” he stated.
But months down the line, nothing has happened. The Disaster Risk Management Bill was not tabled when Parliament convened early this year. The taskforce of experts is yet to be instituted.
The development worries the Centre for Environmental Policy and Advocacy (CEPA), considering that the Bill has been under review for so long, “yet the county needed it as soon as yesterday”.
CEPA Executive Director Herbert Mwalukomo observes that that should not have been in the environmental situation if proper legislation to management of disasters was put in place.
Mwalukomo says it is high time Malawi stopped relying on the Act that was passed in 1991 in response to the Phalombe disasters and that legislation was there for the sake of that immediate disaster.
“This is an unfortunate situation in which we are and we can hope that relevant authorities are going to act with speed.
“The very fact that we have missed the Presidential deadline or directive he had given that by February, which is the previous sitting of Parliament this Bill should have been passed, it means someone, somewhere is not doing their job and we cannot continue like that,” says Mwalukomo.
Likewise, the Association of Environmental Journalists (AEJ) concurs with CEPA that the new law is advanced in terms of provisions only to safeguard but also encourage disaster risk reduction in the country.
Malata: Days of focusing on disaster response are gone.
AEJ President Mathews Malata says government and its stakeholders need to work towards reducing the risks that are associated with disasters, reducing loss of life and loss of infrastructure.
“We are talking about disaster risk reduction management not disaster response. Days of focusing on disaster response are gone. We cannot keep on giving people packets of sugar and plastic buckets; that is not sustainable.
“We need to minimize all this and to do that there are certain things that we need to do and we can only be empowered if we have got a very solid law,” asserts Malata.
He also says the Bill, if passed, will empower authorities to relocate people from disaster-prone areas to other places considered safe.
At the moment, according to him, there are challenges because there are no provisions to support this cause.
“So, there are a lot of things that we can benefit as a nation when it comes to disaster risk management. We need to ensure that people are safe.
“We need to minimize risks associated with disasters and economic loses the nation keeps on registering. So, we need a solid law to address these issues and this is what we need by the end of the day,” he explains.
But environmental and climate change activist, Raphael Mwenenguwe claims there are laws, including the Environmental Management Act of 2017, containing provisions that if fully implemented can help solve these problems.
Mwenenguwe: There is toomuch corruption.
Mwenenguwe also cites the Forestry Act which looks at issues to do with forests, National Climate Change Management Policy and other policies as key in the management of issues to do with climate change.
He concedes that environmental degradation and climate change are hindering the country’s economic growth as they affect food production, energy and water security, among others.
“So, the issue is how we enforce them and there is too much corruption. When you look at most forests, you can tell that it’s just lack of government commitment or authorities to enforce the laws that are
“If we enforce the law and get rid of corruption, I am sure we will make progress,” says Mwenenguwe.
He also observes that campaign messages in 1994—when the nation moved from single-party to multi-party democracy—contributed to forests depletion and environmental degradation, recalling that politicians were telling people that they will be given land which was lying idle.
“For example, two years down the line, half of Thyolo Mountain was depleted by people who started farming there.
“In chikwawa and other districts, people invaded forest areas and other government protected land and then the government started evicting them from the areas, but it was too late—the forests had already been degraded,” he says.
The Department of Disaster Management Affairs (DODMA) says the Bill was approved in 2019 by the then Cabinet, but was not tabled in Parliament because it was not among the Bills that were recommended for tabling in the House.
Gama: Delays are justifiable.
DODMA Principal Mitigation Officer, Sam Gama—while acknowledging that the Bill is long overdue—further claims that the 2019 Presidential Election case disturbed the tabling of this Bill and other Bills to do with finances.
“So, in the process, we had lost almost six months since it was approved by Cabinet and by nature of laws that govern Malawi, we were requested to go back to Cabinet for the approval. The next time the Bill was supposed to be in Parliament was the time the court had nullified the election, meaning to say we also lost that opportunity—of course, not only our Bill, but also other Bills that were supposed to be tabled in Parliament,” says Gama.
In July 2020, he says, the Bill was resubmitted to Ministry of Justice for their review and onwards submission to Cabinet but again, the process faced another obstacle as the Chief Legal Counsel who was there, was transferred to another office.
“We have a new Chief Legal Counsel who is supposed to review the Bill before submitting it to the Cabinet. The delays from the Ministry of Justice are justifiable because the new officer had to appreciate the background of the Bill; not only our bill but also the other Bills as well and that had taken him more time,” says Gama.
He discloses that in April this year, his Department received comments And suggestions, especially in some other provisions of the Bill and that officials from DODMA and Ministry of Justice were scheduled to hold a roundtable discussion to address the comments as well as agree when the Bill is going to be sent to Cabinet.
The roundtable discussions were scheduled for Wednesday, June 3, 2021, according to Gama.