Is development coming at a cost to ecosystem sustainability? – Capital Radio Malawi
19 April, 2024

Is development coming at a cost to ecosystem sustainability?

Water Tank

The tank on Nkhudzi Hill.

Southern Region Water Board (SRWB) commenced construction works of a multi-billion-kwacha water project that is expected to supply clean and potable water to about 93,000 people upon completion in Mangochi district. 

This follows the Government of Malawi secured financial resources to the tune of US$14.4m from the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development (KFAED) to implement extension of water supply in the district. The project targets areas from Mpondasi to Mtakataka Turn-Off including Namiasi, Maldeco and Makawa market centres.

This implementation follows studies that areas surrounding Mangochi town, particularly those around the shore of Lake Malawi are experiencing significant settlement growth. As such it necessitated the need for more reliable safe water supply for the growing population.

During feasibility studies the Nkhudzi Hill was identified as a site for the overhead water tanks by the utility service provider to enable gravity flow for clean potable water to many people who now use salty water from unprotected sources. However, conservationists sounded the alarm that the area is not suitable for such a development as it lies within the precincts of the Lake Malawi National Park.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) awarded Lake Malawi National Park its world heritage status in 1984 emphasizing its ecological importance as the first fresh water protected area. It was designated to the study of evolution comparable to that of the famous Galapagos Islands as home to hundreds of fish species, many of which are endemic to it. 

UNESCO gave a go-ahead for the water project to continue in line with mitigation measures and recommendations from Environmental and Social Impact Assessments (ESIA). However, environmentalists and some concerned Non-Governmental Organizations were not convinced with the development works and maintained that the area is still under threat even if the project’s impact to biodiversity are not right away visible to the naked eye now.

A hike from the bottom of Nkhudzi Hill to the summit where SRWB mounted its tank is strenuous especially for a non-hiker. For a trek that is meant to take at least 20 minutes, it is likely to take those that are inexperienced double the time. Climbing up to the summit where the tank is now installed, one is left in awe at the scenery offered by the view point across Lake Malawi. On second thought it is the shock that the once densely forested hill has had many of its trees uprooted with its imposing rocks on bare grounds after they were blasted to pave way for construction works.  In a country that is already struggling to restore landscapes, this is a cause for concern that raises questions on the environment cost of such development projects.  

Road leading to the tank

No wonder that in March last year, Centre for Environmental Policy and Advocacy (CEPA), Coordination Union for the Rehabilitation of the Environment (CURE), Lake Shepherd, Civil Society Network on Climate Change (CISONECC) and Movement for Environmental Action took the matter concerning the Mangochi water project to court where they sought an injunction for development works to be halted. For several months, the legal tussle continued until August when the Supreme Court of Appeal granted SRWB relief to proceed with the works.

Herbert Mwalukomo, Executive Director for CEPA laments that the damage at Nkhudzi Hill is appalling. “Right now, anyone can see why we were against this project. The scale of soil erosion and destruction of trees is disheartening which is why we maintain our stance on the need to ensure that all impact assessments are done thoroughly.”

Mwalukomo lamented that although they were assured that mitigation measures would be implemented, the situation on the ground is different.

“We need to do better as a country, in as much as we need developments of this nature, it does not mean that it should come at a cost to the environment,” explained Mawalukomo in an interview.

Trees were uprooted to pave way for the project

In a written response to the concerns raised by non-state actors like CEPA, Malawi Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) Acting Deputy Director General Micheal Makonombera said, “MEPA is continuously monitoring the project’s environmental and social performance. The latest monitoring visit to the project site was undertaken on 9th February, 2023. So far and overall, the developer is complying with the ESIA approval conditions.”

As stated by the authority, the ESIA approval conditions include deployment of a full time Environmental Officer to work with the contractors to ensure compliance with mitigation measures in the approved ESIA and approval conditions.  SRWB submit quarterly progress reports to MEPA on the implementation of environmental and social mitigation measures. In addition, SRWB established a Grievance Redress Committee which handles grievances relating to environmental and social concerns raised on the project. Reacting to concerns that there is heavy siltation in the project area, Makonombera says the development was due to heavy rains which Mangochi received late December and not an indication of the project’s failure to meet the necessary environmental safeguards. 

Echoing MEPA’s reply on the same issue, SRWB Chief Executive Officer, Duncan Chambamba admits that the start of the rainy season had a significant impact on the project’s progress. However, Chambamba was quick to clarify that not to the extent of what has been implied by those against the project. He explained that delays to construct drainages resulted in increased flows and erosion emanating from loose material. 

“To mitigate the situation, vetiver grass has been planted in bare sides of the road, silt traps provided and quarry was placed on water ways to prevent erosion,” Chambamba said adding that, “Once the rains subsidize the contractor will proceed with paving works and this will resolve the issue of siltation and erosion. The contractor will continue implementing prevention measures.”

Reacting to cases of non – compliance to the ESIA Chambamba refuted the reports stating that they have already planted 6,000 trees in woodlots within surrounding villages.

Data sourced from Department of Forestry shows that on average, deforestation is responsible for the loss of 14,500 hectares of forest cover per year, however degradation (e.g., thinning) of forests likely results in the equivalent of 36,000 hectares of forest lost–bringing the total average annual loss from deforestation and degradation combined to slightly over 60,000 hectares. This is mainly attributed to biomass energy demand, and in particular booming charcoal business that is reliant on fuelwood. Although there is no concrete data on how the constant flouting of mitigation measures when implementing construction works by developers is contributing to further destruction of forests, for projects such as the one in Mangochi, the loss is quite conspicuous.

Malawi as a developing country has a long way to go in order to achieve various developmental goals, there is a need to find much more sustainable ways of ensuring developers strictly adhere to ESIA.

While admitting that they recognize the impact of various construction projects, the National Construction and Industry Council (NCIC) underscores the need to ensure that all construction projects are implemented in harmony with the environment.

To ensure that industry players adhere to set regulations, the NCIC says it continuously monitors construction activities that are carried out in the country.

“Other than monitoring players in the sector, we have an environmental management strategy in place and a regulation that promotes the use of sustainable construction materials and other interventions that we deliberately put in place,” explains Lyford Gideon, NCIC corporate affairs officer.

Although the regulations are currently in place, NCIC has noted with concern that there is an information gap as some communities are not aware of the set construction guidelines such as use of cement blocks instead burnt bricks. Gideon is therefore of the view that this challenge can be overcome by enhancing awareness of how the public can play their role in promoting the use of sustainable construction materials.

In addition to monitoring construction works, NCIC is also championing reforestation activities in degraded areas.

The Malawi 2063, a development blueprint has set up various initiatives that aim at transforming the country into a wealthy and self-reliant industrialized ‘upper middle-income’ nation come 2063. As such, there are numerous constructions works in the pipeline for this vision to come to fruition. Thom Khanje, public relations and communications manager for the National Planning Commission, reiterates their commitment to ensuring that the companies behind various projects follow the guidelines that have been put in place.

“As development planners, all we can say is that we need to construct buildings which do not damage the environment. We may not be experts on environmental issues because we are planners and other stakeholders are implementers which is why it is the duty to uphold the laws so the country achieves its vision of creating sustainable cities and communities,” Khanje explained.

Not only is Malawi not poised to make Malawi 2063 a reality, it also has the tough task ahead of fulfilling the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal number 11. Along with other signatories, Malawi is by the year 2030 meant to have cities and human settlements that are inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. Among this goal’s targets is to reduce the adverse per capita environmental impact of cities.

Lusayo Mwabumba, an associate professor in Forest Sciences at Mzuzu University says the negative impacts that may come about when implementing development projects can best be prevented if ESIA studies are carried out and religiously adhered to.

“Since the Rio Convention of 1992 in Brazil, internationally, governments developed Environmental and Social Impact Assessments to look into the impact of development projects not only on the environment but the people as well, as such it is important to ensure that all projects are subjected to these assessments,” he says.

Mwabumba notes that despite being given recommendations meant to mitigate the impact of a development project, most developers disregard them, in this case, the government through MEPA needs to put in place strong mechanisms  to monitor if all recommendations are being followed. In his view, it is not only the duty of the government to do the monitoring, the general public can come in as well and inform relevant authorities if there is a non – compliance by developer’s construction project.

 “I know that we cannot protect the environment 100 percent when implementing projects, despite that, it does not mean that it should cost us certain elements of the environment, but with the ESIA, the negative impacts can be minimized at a certain level.” Mwabumba added.

The academician is of the view that in situations where a project’s impact is substantial and negative, then it is better to scrap the project or redesign and come up with an alternative instead of allowing it to go ahead and thereby becoming a cost to the environment.

The reservations on the Mangochi water project may be a tip of the iceberg on how developers are allegedly cutting corners and not paying attention to how future generations will be affected if no care is given today. However, with strengthened monitoring of mitigation measures of the adverse effects by developer, the status quo can easily be reversed.

This story was produced with the support of the AEJ/MCHF – Forest Accountability Journalism Initiative in Malawi (FAJIM).

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