DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania (AlertNet) – When the heavy rainfall came last month, floodwaters poured into Magdalena Lweno’s house and washed away her hard-won belongings: her mattresses, couches, television set, clothing and her daughter’s school books.
Worst of all, it took the cooking utensils the mother of three uses to run her business as a food vendor, leaving her without an income.
“I can’t work right now because my working tools have been swept away,” the 39-year-old resident of low-lying Jangwani suburb complained, from the home of a neighbour where she has been offered temporary shelter. “This is a terrible situation yet there is very little we can do avoid this.”
Lweno’s plight is one facing an increasing number of Tanzanians as extreme weather worsens across the country and local disaster preparedness experts accuse the government of doing too little to respond.
Jangwani, located along Msimbazi Creek, lies just a stone’s throw from Dar es Salaam’s central business district. Hundreds of residents were forced to flee their home when the most recent heavy rains hit in January.
Now the government says it plans to evict residents in the area, to protect lives and avoid repeated flood damage. Residents, however, insist they want to remain, and the problem could be better solved if the government installed better drainage systems and waterways.
For the past three years, torrential rains have repeatedly pounded cities across Tanzania, destroying bridges, roads, homes and crops, and sometimes even taking people’s lives. According to the Tanzania Meteorological Agency, since 2010 most of the country has been experiencing greater-than-average rainfall accompanied by heavy winds.
The commercial capital of Dar es Salaam is particularly vulnerable. Floods, rising sea level and coastal erosion threaten city dwellers also dealing with poverty, poor disaster planning and worn-out infrastructure, experts say.
In December 2011, phenomenal rains - the heaviest to hit the country since its independence in 1961 - claimed the lives of at least 23 people and destroyed infrastructure.
In January, floods again swept through Jangwani, sweeping the belongings of some residents down the Msimbazi River and out into the Indian Ocean.
Hamisi Uledi, 55, whose house was destroyed in the flooding, said the government claimed that many houses in the area were illegal.
“They say we live here illegally. That is not true. Why would TANESCO (the country’s power utility firm) install electricity to our homes if at all we were illegal? It is not proper to brand us invaders,” he charged.
Uledi, a fish monger at Magogoni Market, charged that the government had failed to help residents in difficult times.
“Every now and then we seek shelters in primary school buildings. There is no special areas for flood victims,” he said.
Although the government has officially declared Jangwani a disaster zone, low-income families still move to the area to set up makeshift homes and farms, attracted by the easy access to unregulated land.
Dar es Salaam Regional Commissioner Said Mecky Sadick said the government is doing all it can to educate people about the risks of staying in areas like Jangwani.
“As a government we have the responsibility of reminding people in disaster-prone areas to take necessary precautions," said Sadick. But he insisted that "generally we are well prepared to handle emergencies."
Critics disagree, saying the government’s response to the floods has been sluggish because it does not have a contingency plan in place, relying instead on ad hoc measures when dealing with disaster situations.
The government says it is taking steps to improve its response to weather-related disasters, including floods, cyclones, landslides and food shortages. Those include setting up disaster relief centres and providing shelter, food and clothing for victims. But some analysts say the promises have not translated into policies and Tanzania’s Disaster Management Department is not living up to its name.
“Whenever a disaster strikes, appropriate response and preparedness is always lacking," said Saumu Jumanne, a lecturer at Dar es Salaam University College of Education.
In many instances the government has been using security forces to carry out rescue operations, but once victims are safe they still face a shortage of rescue centres, food and clothing, experts say.
James Mbatia, a member of parliament and an expert in disaster prevention, said the increasing devastation caused by flooding in Tanzania's cities is partly due to infrastructure growth not keeping up with population growth.
He said the poor especially are suffering because without money to buy land in safer areas of the city they are forced to settle in high-risk zones. He urged the government to push to move people at risk to safer areas.
“We can never be fully prepared for natural calamities," he said. "But the government can at least have structures and logistical support to help poor people in difficult times."
HARD-HIT COASTAL AREAS
It isn't only Tanzania's cities that are feeling the wrath of extreme weather. Most of the country's coastal towns, notably Lindi and Mtwara, also are being battered. For the first time in memory, people living in those towns have seen winds strong enough to trigger waves over 2 metres (6 feet) high.
On New Year's Eve, heavy rainfall - over 50mm (2 inches) in just a few hours - pounded Ruangwa district in Lindi, leveling 32 houses and leaving more than 200 people homeless. According to local media reports, several primary schools were also destroyed.
The Tanzania Meteorological Agency says the country's increasingly chaotic weather is linked to climate change. The agency predicts that much of the country will experience above-normal rainfall for some time to come.
“We expect to continue receiving off-season rains in most areas until March this year," Agnes Kijazi, the agency’s director general, said in January. "Members of the public should therefore take precautionary measures to ensure their safety given that the rains may cause floods.”
The rains continue to bring despair to those unable to cope with them. In Dar es Salaam, near Mbezi beach, carpenter Kasim Mlekwa can only watch helplessly as his sofa factory –a building the size of a football field in a low-lying area – stands filled with water, leaving him out of work.
Rising as high as the windows, the water that has poured into the factory has destroyed vital stock, including canvas and leather.
“This is my livelihood, but as you can see my workplace is in the middle of water," he said. "And I don’t know when the water will recede."
Kizito Makoye is a journalist based in Dar es Salaam.