Malawi faces urban explosion

Every morning, residents of Malawi’s sprawling commercial hub, Blantyre, wake up to deafening noises as hundreds of thousands of people pour into the city to try to make a living.

During peak hours, roads from townships leading to the city’s main streets become clogged with traffic that ranges from minibuses, trucks and bicycles to a sea of pedestrians.

Road accidents are common and vary from five to 10 a day in the city, according to the police.

Back in the 1980s, peak hours in Blantyre hardly resulted in traffic jams unless, of course, if the convoy of the late dictator Hastings Kamuzu Banda was passing by and roads had to be cordoned off by order.

Now Blantyre’s landscapes are changing. The latest United Nations Centre for Human Settlement (UNCHS) study on urbanisation shows that the city of Blantyre and other trading centres in the northern and central regions of Malawi are becoming noisier, thanks to rapid urbanisation.

The study, which was released this month, says Malawi—a tiny, landlocked and impoverished Southern African nation of about 13-million—has emerged as the fastest-urbanising country in the world with an urban population growth of 6,3%, compared with 0,5% in rural areas.

According to the study, three million people now live in urban areas compared with 260 000 in 1966, something which represents growth of 25%.

The study, which has tipped Malawi to score highly in urbanisation in the next 15 years, concurs with an earlier study by the United Kingdom Department for International Development that 44% of Malawi’s population, or more than five million people, will live in towns by 2015.

It says three-quarters of Malawi’s population lives in the main urban centres of Blantyre, Lilongwe, Mzuzu and Zomba.

The findings of the two studies prompted Malawian authorities and civil society on Tuesday to convene a meeting in the administrative capital, Lilongwe, to debate how to meet the challenges of urbanisation in the next 15 years.

The stakeholders, meeting under the theme Malawi Is World Champion in Urban Population Growth, admitted that urbanisation is the main contributing factor to land and housing shortages, congestion, squatter settlements, crime, HIV/Aids infection and unemployment.

Malawi’s economy depends on agriculture and shortages of land have in recent years contributed to perennial food shortages, which refuse to ease. In 2002, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation and other aid agencies estimated that more than three million Malawians needed emergency food. This year, the agencies have projected that more than one million people will starve if food aid is not provided.

Economists fear that the need to import the staple maize this year could cause depreciation of the kwacha as the country’s foreign exchange cover is low. Donors are withholding aid, citing fiscal indiscipline by Lilongwe.

Apart from food insecurity, HIV/Aids infection has emerged as the most appalling crisis to hit the urban areas. Malawi’s HIV infection prevalence hovers at 14,7%, according to the latest UN Joint Programme on HIV/Aids report.

Of the one million people infected, the Malawi National Aids Commission estimates that 25%, or 250 000, are in urban areas compared with 13% in the rural areas.

The commission estimates that Aids has created about 600 000 orphans. As a result, orphanages are now overwhelmed.

“Most of the orphans end up on the streets as beggars and grow up into thugs,” says Bertha Bonongwe of Chisomo Care Group, an orphanage at Ndala Village on the outskirts of Blantyre.

City officials say urbanisation is also leading to squatter settlements, which cause congestion and sanitation breakdowns. According to UNCHS, 71% of residents in Blantyre live in squalid and unplanned settlements.

City officials blame utility companies for providing installations in areas that are not fully developed.

“Installations such as water and electricity in underdeveloped places attract people to go and settle in such areas,” says Sophie Kalimba, the chief executive of Blantyre City Assembly.

Masauko Ngwaluko, spokesperson for the Lilongwe Water Board, says vandalism of plastic water pipes has steadily increased in recent years. The pipes are used for making teapots and other domestic appliances, which are in high demand in the city.

“We’re losing about K650 000 [$6 000] every month to repair vandalised installations,” he says, adding that such disruptions are leading to failure by the board to provide uninterrupted services to residents.

The country’s sole power utility, the Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi, is also feeling the pinch of urbanisation. Its installations, such as transformers, are targeted by residents who extract the oil for unknown use, it says.

Critics say Malawi has become poorer in the past 10 years of reintroducing multiparty democracy. Before 1994, Malawi had been a one-party state for more than 30 years under Banda. More than 65% of the population now lives below the poverty line of $1 a day, according to the World Bank.

In April, a study by Khwima Nthara—an economist with Deloitte and Touche firm—revealed that Malawi’s gross national income—that is earned by individuals in a country—has fallen from $220 in 1997 to $160 now.

Economists and UN agencies believe poverty is the main driving force behind the rural-urban migration in Malawi.

“The influx of people from rural areas is directly linked to increasingly harsh conditions many families are facing in outlying areas of Malawi,” says the UNCHS study.

To address the problems faced by the urban poor, the Secondary Centres Development Project (SCDP)—a German-funded project—is servicing unplanned housing sites with access to clean water, drainages and roads. It also processes land-ownership certificates.

Charles Mkula, the project’s communication officer, says the SCDP has processed 8 900 title deeds for the poorest households in urban areas.

“Due to urbanisation, poverty is increasing in urban households with homeless migrants living in slums not fit for human habitation,” Mkula says.

Like it or hate it, rapid urbanisation looks irreversible in Malawi.

“Evidence shows urbanisation cannot be stopped whether by law, policy or development projects targeting the poor. The best thing to do would be to let public investment follow the people,” argues Mtafu Zeleza Manda of the Malawi Institute of Physical Planners, which pools the country’s engineers, architects and planners.—IPS

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