On that fateful morning, images of soaked and soiled coffins afloat on a fiercely flooded Nasolo River were commonplace on many social media platforms. As many witnessed the further collapse of its banks from a distance, a group of roadside vendors from nearby shops in Blantyre’s populous Ndirande Township got worrisomely closer to salvaging something from an unfolding tragedy bent on complicating their economic plight already bruised by the trappings of the COVID – 19 global health pandemic.
These were new coffins displayed for prospective buyers from within and beyond the heavily populated township, with sellers hoping to cash in, but nature caught them unawares, and foiled their business.
Heavy rains that had been pouring in Blantyre flooded the Nasolo River and swept away carpentry displays at Ndirande Market in Blantyre.
Among the vendors was a 53-year-old Hyneck Banda, who recounts the imminent thought of losing his business capital birthed in him a monster to recover what defined his survival.
Hyneck Banda: It was dreadful
“It was dreadful. The business was affected. We recovered some items but efforts to recover from the losses we suffered are on-going,” recounts Banda, a father of five, while constantly glancing at river Nasolo.
The river, which snakes past the middle of a densely populated township, originates from a nearby bare Ndirande mountain following decades of wanton and unchecked deforestation and encroachment, exposing thousands of lives and valuable property to destruction through imminent floods, landslides and rock fall.
Part of bare Ndirande Mountain
Equally bare as a result of similar human activity in Malawi’s commercial capital are the Ndirande sister hills of Mpingwe and Soche. Coupled with the growing emptiness of hills and mountains in neighbouring districts of Mulanje and Thyolo, the devastation of the speeding waters down the lower shire, is increasingly a repetitive national concern.
The forestry department has, over the years, failed to enforce environmental protection laws that prohibit construction encroachment, construction works and economic activities on riverbanks, leaving them without trees and vegetation, which slow run-offs.
This was not the first time for Ndirande to experience devastating floods. In 2015, two people lost their lives after being washed away by flooding water in the river.
Meanwhile, the Malawi 2019 Floods Post Disaster Needs Assessment Report shows that the country is highly vulnerable to the impacts of extreme weather events given its location along the great African Rift Valley, rapid population growth, unsustainable urbanisation, climate variability and change, and environmental degradation.
According to the report, the total value of the damage and loss resulting from the 2019 floods reached US$220.2 million. Of this total, the total value of the damage is valued at US$ 157.7 million, with the total value of loss standing at about US$62.5 million.
The report says the most affected sector was the social sector—about 60 percent of the total effects—followed by the infrastructure sector (23 percent) and the productive sector (17 percent).
Floods undermine human wellbeing
Likewise, the World Bank Country Climate and Development Report, released in October 2022, states that Malawi is more prone to adverse climate hazards including dry spells, seasonal droughts, floods and flash floods.
Climate change, according to a 2021 study by Nature Geoscience, is causing an expansion of tropical cyclones, leaving other countries more vulnerable.
These changes have major implications for human welfare and threaten to undermine development gains across sectors.
This means Ndirande, just like other areas in the country, is prone to natural disasters, due to deforestation and other environmentally destructive practices that expose the nation further to natural calamities.
However, for the last two or three decades, the government has been pumping a lot of resources towards tree planting and civil society organizations (CSOs) as well have been supporting the government on so many fronts, especially helping to raise nurseries but also working with communities to plant trees and get them established.
The country has been planting 60 million trees each forest season. And in 2018, apart from the tree planting season, the government allocated K5 billion for a tree planting and care programme, but the survival rate has not been something to celebrate because few trees have been surviving and some of the trees cannot be found growing.
Published reports indicate deforestation is responsible for the loss of 33,000 hectares per year with the survival rate of the trees that are planted below 50 percent.
Meanwhile, one Gift London in Matope within Ndirande Township, moved by the impact of floods which rendered scores of households in the area earlier this year, has teamed up with fifteen others to establish a nursery of 20, 000 seedlings of different species for use during the 2022 – 2023 tree planting season.
Additionally, to counter careless disposal of waste—believed to have aggravated the floods that affected 126 households in the area, the group resolved to collect the waste from households along the river, with which they produce organic fertilizer, not for sale but to nourish the tree seedlings.
London and Kambalame nurturing the seedlings
“Deforestation and poor management of wastes highly contributed to the severity of the floods. Households dispose of wastes into the river whose catchment area is also compromised,” says London, pointing out that the voluntary group will be planting 15, 000 trees annually.
“We want to restore the forest which was here. We are doing it freely. There is nothing that we are earning from this nursery, but we are just committed to restoring the forest and helping in waste management here,” claims London, adding that they apply the organic fertilizer to their seedlings.
Jennifer Kambalame, 39, from Matope in the area, after understanding the concept, resolved to support them, not with cash, but with her energy and time to water the tree seedlings routinely.
Kambalame carrying a shovel
“I am a mother, and my children are still young and very vulnerable to natural disasters.
“When I recall what happened in January when some children have washed away, fear grips me. This is worthwhile,” says Kambalame, a mother of three and the only female member of the group.
She further notes that communities around the mountain and along the river have the responsibility of planting and caring for the planted trees.
“If each one of us had been planting at least two trees along the riverbanks and uphill, I don’t think we could have been in this situation. We have to do something,” says Kambalame.
Coordinator of the Lilongwe Chapter of the Global Landscape Forum Steve Makungwa concurs with Kambalame on the need to up efforts in caring for trees.
“The planting is done every year, but if you walk around, you rarely see all these trees in the places they have been planted. Without caring for them, we are losing millions of financial resources that are allocated towards exercise yearly,” he says, while referring to 60 million and 40 million seedlings that were earmarked for planting in 2020 and 2021 as immediate examples.
“To tell the truth, the strategies we have been using to grow and establish the trees need to be revisited,” suggests Makungwa.
The Civil Society Network on Climate Change (Cisonecc), an organization which coordinates civil society groups on matters of climate change, cites natural regeneration as one of the key components of growing and establishing trees.
“Most of the land we have in Malawi, at least there was vegetation somewhere and if we capitalize on the original vegetation and ensure that it regenerates naturally. This way, the chance of survival is higher than the trees we plant,” suggests its National Coordinator Julius Ng’oma.
site-matching species needed to reafforest
“With research and species-site-matching as we are trying to grow and establish these trees, I am sure with minimal supervision, some of the trees are going to be surviving and then we can easily establish forests in Malawi,” he adds.
Minister of Natural Resources and Climate Change Eisenhower Mkaka concedes planting trees alone is not enough.
“The survival rate is not good enough. That is why we haven’t just committed to planting a million trees, we have also pledged to protect them.
“If we can nurture them until they’re fully grown, they will one day provide shade and ground cover, reduce water run-off, prevent erosion and retain moisture – for the benefit of Malawi’s women, children and men,” he says.
The government has committed to restoring the degraded 4.5 million hectares of forests and landscapes in the country with 50 million trees earmarked for this tree planting season [2022/23].
“If we can nurture them until they’re fully grown, they will one day provide shade and ground cover, reduce water run-off, prevent erosion and retain moisture – for the benefit of Malawi’s women, children and men,” he adds.
The Malawi 2063, the government’s official document and roadmap, wants the country to have a safe, clean, secure and sustainable environment; consistently rejuvenate and maintain environmentally sound land, water and forest resources and develop systems to break the cycle of environmental degradation and increase resilience.
Likewise, the Global Forests goal I under the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals compels nations to reverse the loss of forest cover through sustainable forest management, including protection, restoration, afforestation and reforestation and increase efforts to prevent forest degradation and contribute to the global effort of addressing climate change by 2030.
But for now, hundreds of people in Ndirande and beyond, remain vulnerable to natural disasters with finances going down the drain until Malawi restores the forests, strengthens its disaster risk management strategy, ensures implementation of acceptable structural construction standards and ensures community resiliency to the effects of future disasters.
Reported by Yamikani Simutowe, MBC Online Services.