LUSAKA, Zambia (AlertNet) – Almost a year since flood waters wrought havoc on the Zambian capital, Lusaka is bracing for more of the same as poor urban planning exacerbates the effects of changing weather patterns.
Lusaka was inundated in March 2010. Water rose above the window levels of many houses, strong currents carried away pieces of market stalls and boys hoisted fishing nets to catch whatever they could from the gullies where, not long before, they had walked to school.
Typically, March marks the end of the country’s rainy season but last year, rains were prolonged and fell harder than ever. Now, it is rainy season once again in Zambia, with the Department of Meteorology predicting above-normal rainfall through March.
Weather patterns are changing across Africa – a phenomonon many experts attribute to the effects of climate change. Rains are heavier and fall at different times while dry periods are growing longer in some regions, wreaking havoc on agriculture.
But in Zambia, as in other African countries, human behaviour is compounding climate pressures, particularly as people migrate to cities from the countryside, crowd into small areas of land, build unpermitted homes and block drainage routes with rubbish.
“Things are disorganised. People build anywhere. They throw their rubbish anywhere. Don’t they realise what they’re doing?” said Evelyn Kaunda, a 30-year-old housewife who lives in a two-roomed house in Lusaka’s Chipata Compound, one of the capital’s townships that was severely affected by last year’s floods.
Residents and city officials fear a repeat of the scenes from 2010. In recent weeks, heavy rain has fallen and there have been isolated reports of water levels rising in various parts of the city, including Chipata and another compound called Kanyama.
“If they dealt with the drainage, they’d solve half the people’s problems in Kanyama,” said a resident of that township, who asked to remain anonymous.
Lusaka’s population has exploded in recent years, with an additional 400,000 people moving to the capital since 2004 in search of jobs and school places. That has pushed the capital’s population to almost 1.5 million, according to estimates from the Central Statistics Office.
Such rural-urban migration is expected to surge in many places around the world in coming years, as population growth and more unpredictable weather linked to climate change make earning an adequate living from agriculture or herding less reliable, and as urban jobs offer alternative sources of income.
But Lusaka’s experience suggests what can happen if large-scale migration occurs without adequate planning.
About 60 percent of Lusaka’s population lives in compounds or townships, where small, self-built houses crowd against each other, where there are no indoor plumbing or sewerage facilities and where many residents get electricity through unauthorised connections.
Only 13 percent of Lusaka residents have access to proper sanitation, according to statistics from the Ministry of Local Government and Housing. Residents get water from communal taps and use outdoor pit latrines - but the latrines are not built a safe distance away from homes and are often not dug deep enough or not properly lined to stop excrement seeping into the ground water.
People also discard their household waste in open rubbish pits close to their homes, creating a fertile breeding grounds for disease-carrying vectors like flies and rats.
Lusaka City Council provides waste disposal bins but at a cost of 5000 Kwacha ($1) per month, most residents cannot afford to pay for waste removal.
During periods of heavy or prolonged rain, latrines and rubbish pits flood, creating a situation ripe for the spread of diseases like cholera and malaria.
In March 2010, there were 564 cases of cholera in Zambia, with 30 deaths in Lusaka, according to the Ministry of Health. There have been a few cases reported in the provinces this year but none yet in Lusaka.
“Kanyama has the highest cases of cholera every year,” said Mwape Lwenga, a former manager and water engineer with Lusaka Water and Sewerage Company “It’s only a matter of time. The same will happen this year … The city is not ready.”
LACK OF PLANNING
Many of the homes in Lusaka’s compounds were built without planning permission from Lusaka City Council and placed in areas not suitable for construction or highly vulnerable to flooding, particularly as drainage channels are blocked by buildings or filled with litter.
Chanda Kakusa-Makanta, a spokesperson for the Lusaka City Council, said council engineers worked hard last November, in the run-up to the rainy season, to clear drains but are fighting a losing battle as residents continue to throw rubbish into drainage channels, often blocking whole networks.
“Lusaka City Council is not ready for the floods but we are doing our level best to avoid flooding,” Makanta said in a telephone interview.
The capital needs better infrastructure, more drains and a programme to strengthen existing facilities, but the council does not have funds to address the problem, she said.
“If we had sufficient resources, we wouldn’t have these repeated problems,” she said.
Rebuilding and refurbishing Lusaka’s drainage system to adequate standards would cost more than $75 million, according to estimates from a Ministry of Finance project. In the 2011 national budget, $33.2 million was set aside for urban water and sanitation projects, to be divided among several of Zambia’s urban centres. That suggests Lusaka’s problems are likely to continue, especially if it continues to grow without adequate planning, officials said.
Makanta said Lusaka, in its current state, cannot cope with the influx of new residents.
“People think Lusaka is where the money is, but I’d encourage them to go back to their towns and work there,” she said.
Mali Kambandu-Nkhoma is a Lusaka-based freelance writer. This story is part of a series supported by the Climate and Development Knowledge Network.