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Zambia’s floods wash away life and hope

 The Big Issue Zambia 07 May 2019

Although the rain is widely welcomed in Zambia and marks the onset of the planting season for the nation's farmers, millions of people dread the annual downpours that bring death, disease and destruction. (818 Words) - By Samba Yonga

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INSP_Zambia’s floods wash away life and hope

A resident of Lusaka's Misisi township wades through waterlogged streets in the Zambian capital, February 1, 2019. The country continues to be lashed by torrential rain in 2012, causing rivers to burst their banks, forcing villagers to continuously to flee flooded homes. Photo: REUTERS/Mackson Wasamunu

''My house is destroyed. All the things in my house are gone. We keep pleading with government to make us better housing. Water is in our house and it's dirty, it has flooded the drainage and sewer and we are subjected to all of this. This is not healthy, this is why we get sick. We need a better solution'' says Mary Mabombe whose house in Misisi Compound, Lusaka, was flooded recently.

For many Zambians, heavy rain means flooding which causes catastrophic problems in residential areas. Indeed, people in some of Lusaka's townships were recently forced to flee from their dwellings as floods submerged their homes under water, garbage and debris.

Most of the houses were built on illegal settlements where half the city's population lives, mostly ramshackle, unsafe structures without proper sanitation. When the rain arrives, shacks collapse like a house of cards and rain-water mixes with sewage to pose a toxic health risk. Fearing for their health, Lusaka's residents salvaged what they could and left. Most now live in makeshift accommodation and are enduring the long wait for their homes to dry out.

One of the main consequences of flooding is diarrhoea, a disease transmitted by exposure to garbage, lack of sanitary care and dirty drinking water. Diarrhoea claims about 6600 deaths in children and 8700 in adults in Zambia annually, according to a report by the World Bank called Economic Impact of Poor Sanitation in Africa - Zambia.

Indeed, increased mortality rates in recent years forced the government to introduce a vaccine to immunise some 750,000 children from a virulent form of diarrhoea called rotavirus. The vaccination programme was launched earlier this year and is a project supported by, among others, Absolute Return for Kids (ARK), a UK charity which has links to the Duke of Cambridge.

Immunisation is viewed by some people as the best way of combating the illness, especially for the poorest families who cannot access clean water or toilets. Announcing the initiative in January 2012, Dr Joseph Kalemba, minister for child and maternal health, said the vaccine was the best remedy as Lusaka cannot wait for adequate water and sanitation facilities to be built.

"We are tired of constantly having to move up and down and be saved by the government's disaster and management team. We need stable lives."

This remains a major challenge for the Zambian government. According to the World Bank's World Sanitation Programme report, four million Zambians use unsanitary or shared latrines while some 2.1 million have no latrines and resort to disposal of human excrement in open space.

As a consequence, many experts say the vaccination programme only deals with the symptoms and not the cause so the general situation is unlikely to improve in the short term.

Most of Lusaka's illegal settlements were built without proper town planning and so people live near sewers, rubbish dumps and graveyards. The authorities say this mushrooming of illegal housing is a growing problem and they are looking at ways of reversing the situation although nothing has been implemented yet.

Henry Kapata, a spokesperson for Lusaka City Council, says the best way to deal with the problem is by demolishing pit latrines and building communal ablutions.

"The problem of poor sanitation and sewer systems has plagued us for quite a while. Good public health is a goal we intend to reach. I must admit it's a challenging one because even as we are demolishing pit latrines the people continue to dig more. We are hoping with the construction of the ablution blocks we will be able to manage the problem of poor sanitation and drainage," he explained.

The municipality cannot ignore the importance of ensuring that there is an efficient water and sanitation programme in place and that houses are designed in a way that fortifies and protects against floods in legally zoned structures.

One of the challenges the municipality has faced is a lack of funding, a matter now being addressed by the government. The Lusaka City Council (LCC) was allocated ZMK10billion (about $2million) in 2012 to work on drainage and sewer system across Zambia but this amount does not come close to the total required for urgently required infrastructure improvements.

The problem also extends to rural areas which are much less developed than Lusaka. Every year villagers from the eastern province and other parts of the country have to relocate from their homes to higher land as houses often get washed away. Indeed, every year thousands of people have to build new homes and start all over again.

''We are tired of constantly having to move up and down and be saved by the government's disaster and management team. We need stable lives. We need a permanent solution. How long will they [government] manage to save us? It has to end!'' asks a woman who lives in a flooded village in Petauke.

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