After making landfall in Mozambique, tropical cyclone Freddy settled in Malawi’s southern region dumping six months’ worth of rain in only three days.
Labelled as one of the most powerful and longest-lasting storms ever recorded in the southern hemisphere, the cyclone left a trail of destruction due to heavy rainfall which induced floods, and mudslides in 14 districts.
Information from the Department of Disaster Management Affairs (DoDMA) confirms that the cyclone affected more than two million Malawians, displacing over 659,000, with 676 deaths on record, and to this very day, 537 people are still missing.
In the commercial capital, Blantyre, the damage that the storm left in townships such as Bangwe, Chilobwe, Chirimba, Ndirande, and Soche is still noticeable.
Even though some people have picked up the pieces of what cyclone Freddy left of their lives, others are forced to relive the memories of those fateful days in March as they continue to dwell in houses on the brink of collapse.
Twenty-three-year-old Alice Malamba escaped her damaged house in the slums of Chilobwe. Her journey led her to another settlement situated on the slopes of Soche Hill in Chisa Village.
To get to Chisa Village, one must depart from the well-known Pa Centre in the township and hike through the dense slums. Interestingly, despite being located on restricted land, the village has its own local chief.
Just a stone’s throw away from a river whose banks clearly burst when Freddy descended upon Malawi, one enters Malamba’s compound. If not for the sound chatter and laughter of children, the first assumption would be that the house in sight was abandoned. The degree of damage from the Cyclone makes the structure inhabitable.
The ceaseless Freddy-induced rains stripped away half of the house which was largely built by air-dried mud bricks that failed to withstand the elements. What used to be the house’s front door is now occupied by bricks carefully stacked from the floor to the warped iron sheets that now make up the roof. This makeshift barrier serves as a temporary solution, attempting to seal off the exposed area left by the storm’s destructive force.
On the day that the first continuous rains hit Blantyre during the weekend of March 11, Malamba was not in Chisa village, nor was she living in a restricted area. Her family used to live in a more decent house that she had to flee after it collapsed.
“I remember it was in the afternoon there were drizzles, I heard a strange sound and found that the wall of my house had collapsed,” She recalls. In the rush of the moment, she took with her whatever she could and found refuge at a relative’s house along with several other relations affected by the storm.
Days later; she moved her family once more into the house that she has now been living rent-free since the cyclone.
“We moved out of our relative’s house because of the living conditions with several families in one house with no privacy. That is why my husband and I accepted the offer to move into this house even though it was also destroyed by the storm,” she says.
The dire circumstances forcing residents to endure such hazardous conditions are rooted in poverty. Although authorities forbid construction in these areas, the prohibitive costs of relocation leave them with little or no viable options.
The World Food Programme estimates that almost 2.3 million people in the agriculture sector lost their crops and livestock and over 179,000 hectares of crop fields were destroyed this year alone. For an already impoverished nation where the cost of living is at an all-time high, Malamba’s reasons for choosing to live in a dangerous area are understandable considering that she and many other members of her community live below US$ 1 a day.
A social issues commentator Wonderful Mkhutche says the environment that the people of Chisa Village are living in says a lot about the state of the nation. “When people are living in inhabitable areas it is the fault of the government as it has the duty to make sure order prevails in the society,” Mkhutche explains.
“The government now has a good case after the cyclone to use whatever means possible to remove people from those areas. However, this needs to happen with knowledge of how vulnerable the people are. As much as it is the people in the wrong, there is still a need for an amicable way forward,” he adds.
While encroachment of restricted areas remains a longstanding issue in Blantyre City, council officials assert their commitment to facilitating smooth relocations. Acting Chief Executive Officer Denis Chinseu acknowledges the complexity of the matter and emphasizes the importance of collaboration with stakeholders to address hill encroachment.
“We are engaging communities to find ways of getting out of this problem so people are willingly moving out of disaster prone areas. We will however have to demolish the structures there should we face resistance so we can save lives,” Chinseu says.
On the other hand, DoDMA’s Public Relations Officer Chipiliro Khamula echoes Chinseu’s sentiments adding that they have started working with city council officials and are engaging with local chiefs, district councils and the affected people themselves to help identify suitable areas for relocation.
While tropical storm Freddy is now nothing more but a tale, experts say the country should gear up for more such extreme weather events. Lucy Mtilatila, director of the Department of Climate Change and Meteorological Services explains that global warming will continue to affect local weather patterns every year as long as greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced.
The National Geographic Society defines global warming as the current rise in the average temperature of the earth’s air and oceans due to human activities, primarily fossil fuel burning, which increases heat-trapping greenhouse gas levels in the earth’s atmosphere
Mtilatila explains that: “Temperature increases distort rainfall patterns causing the development of tropical cyclones on the ocean, we used to have fewer cyclones but now they are more frequent than ever before.”
According to the weather expert, Malawi only used to get affected by tropical cyclones every seven years, however, it has since been hit by five cyclones in a period of four years.
Cementing her observation, a study by the World Weather Attribution group recently found that climate change fuelled heavier rainfall during a series of storms that battered southern Africa last year. Researchers also found that the damage inflicted by storms in the region was exacerbated by global warming.
The World Bank concedes that climate change is deeply intertwined with global patterns of inequality as the poorest and most vulnerable people bear the brunt of climate change impacts yet contribute the least to the crisis.
Considering the economic status of people dwelling in disaster-prone areas, Chinseu says they have set up a plan to make sure that they are all assisted accordingly. Following tropical cyclone Freddy, the Blantyre City Council found that 80 percent of people living in restricted areas were living in rented houses and only 20 percent would require assistance to relocate.
“The houses in restricted areas were built by people with the capacity to construct where it is safe. We know that these people may not have the financial resources at hand which is why several stakeholders have shown an interest to support them,” Chinseu explains.
As the wounds inflicted by cyclone Freddy persist, Alice Malamba’s story serves as a stark reminder of the challenges faced by economically marginalized communities.
“Yes, we know the danger that we are in, but we have no choice because we are poor and trying to survive these hard times. I am unemployed and my husband relies on piece jobs which are unreliable. Of course, this house is damaged, but at least we have a roof over our head because it is free,” she says.