Storm-hit Zimbabweans endure another rainy season in risky homes

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The government is planning to relocate residents of flimsy houses near rivers that flooded when Cyclone Idai hit - but engineers say a comprehensive overhaul of building codes and materials is needed

By Farai Shawn Matiashe 

Albert Sabawe, 25, is waiting to eat lunch, resting against the wall of his flimsy wooden home in a small village in eastern Zimbabwe's Chimanimani district.

The father of one moved into this shack by the river when he got married in 2018, after his parents bought the land from local authorities in 2010.

Jobless Sabawe could not afford to build a house of brick and cement, as is common in Zimbabwe.

But when powerful Cyclone Idai hit last March, ripping off part of the roof, luck spared his family.

The storm killed more than 300 people, displaced about 60,000 and destroyed 50,000 homes in the southern African nation.

It caused damage worth $622 million, mainly in Chimanimani and Chipinge districts, according to the government.

Sabawe's home survived, but located less than 10 metres (33 ft) from the Nyamatanda River, whose channel was widened by the 2019 storm, it remains vulnerable to flooding this rainy season.

"We are living so close to the river. I would not want another cyclone to strike again while I am still here," Sabawe said.

If offered the chance to relocate under a planned government programme, he would be willing to do so as long as the area had enough farmland to sustain his family, he said.

Chimanimani has so far received average rainfall this rainy season, which runs through April.

But the Meteorological Services Department (MSD) has predicted heavy rains nationwide in the coming weeks, and other places have already experienced flash floods, damaging homes and crops.

According to Zimbabwe's Civil Protection Unit (CPU), many houses made of cheap materials near rivers were wiped away by Cyclone Idai, while those still standing remain at risk of flooding.

CPU director Nathan Nkomo said both rural and urban settlements and infrastructure should adhere to planning regulations and minimum standards to reduce the risk of disasters.

Edward Antonio, a lecturer in the civil engineering department at Mutare Polytechnic, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation it was high time local authorities designed buildings with climate change in mind.

Many Africa-based engineers had yet to grasp the reality of climate change or that most designs from the early 1970s were no longer robust enough, he said, while building codes were not being updated in line with disaster threats.

"Proper planning and siting of infrastructure is lacking (and) construction materials and standards being used are cheap and of poor quality," he warned.

Antonio said key factors in determining risk were not the distance of a building from a river but river capacity, soil type, size of the water catchment area and intensity of rainfall.

Cyclone Idai brought heavy downpours to Chimanimani and Chipinge, resulting in huge surface runoff that caused flooding as the soil was saturated and rivers overflowed, he explained.

New landslide threat

Julius Sibanda, a Mutare-based engineer, said altering building designs could face resistance from most Zimbabweans as it could hike costs at a time of economic crisis.

"Of course we can change, but it becomes unaffordable to most citizens," he said, calling for rules to prohibit human settlement in flood-risk areas.

In past decades, Zimbabwe has not often experienced landslides during storms. But last year, landslides in Chimanimani and Chipinge left devastation.

The CPU, based on weather forecasts, had advised people to move to higher ground to keep them safe from flooding - but doing so put them at risk of landslides.

Terence Mushore, a climate scientist and lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe, said one lesson from Cyclone Idai was that an extreme event with a very low probability can happen.

"Landslides were beyond the expectation of anyone," he added.

In mountainous Chimanimani, people were mainly worried about floods in low-lying areas but had not anticipated danger on higher ground, he explained.

The CPU's Nkomo said Zimbabwe's early warning equipment and systems for weather and climate hazards were grossly inadequate.

There was an urgent need to revamp them and procure radar systems to track rainfall volume and intensity, he added.

In the 2020 national budget plan, Finance Minister Mthuli Ncube proposed allocating 165 million Zimbabwean dollars (about $7 million) to purchase weather radar equipment.

Marian Chombo, deputy minister for local government, said people living along river channels and on dangerous slopes would be considered for relocation after a consultation process which was still underway.

The government has still to resettle about 200 cyclone-affected people living in tents in Chimanimani, suggesting the process will take longer for those who have houses. Chombo said there was a need to construct climate-resilient infrastructure, and housing designs and building materials would be revised.

But until that happens, the CPU said it fears that cheaply built houses located by rivers, like Sabawe's, are a disaster waiting to happen.

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Hazards Flood Landslide
Country and region Zimbabwe
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