Degraded Hills and Mountains Fight Back

Chilima (in cap) Chilima (in cap) - pic by Christopher Sande

There is time for consequences. Malawi is currently in pain, suffering and anger following the devastating tropical cyclone Freddy that hit the southern region mid March this year.

For the first time in the history of the country, mudslides erupted in multiple hills and mountains razing down houses, killing people and damaging property, washing away crops and livestock in the process.

The death toll and number of those missing were high around Soche hill in Blantyre, Mulanje due to flooding waters from the mountain and Lisawo and Chilimanjenkhwanje hills in Chiradzulu.

We also had casualties after the bursting of Ndirande and Machinjiri hills in the commercial city and Michesi, Machemba and Namangale hills in Phalombe district.

Villagers, experts and authorities agree that massive deforestation in hills and mountains was a major contributor to this year’ severe disaster. The wanton cutting down of trees for resettlement and farming has made hills and mountains bare. For instance, out of 700 hectares in Ndirande hill, 500 are encroached.

A flood survivor, Vincent Thom from Phalombe, says sustainable re-afforestation programs need to be implemented in order to prevent a repeat of what happened this year. "We  need to act now," said Thom.

A woman from Dokotala village, from Mpama area in Chiradzulu, Lorraine Mhura recalls how a mudslide that originated Lisawo hill destroyed her house and swept away all household items.

“I am currently having difficulties to forget what happened, I am still in a state of shock. The mudslide was devastating and I am now seeking shelter at my relative’ place,” said Mhura.

Village head Mtauchira of the same district whose whole village was destroyed by a mudslide from Chilimanjenkhwanje hill around Nguludi area is in grief. He says 13 people were killed, several others still missing and houses, property including livestock washed away. The village head added that more needs to be done to rehabilitate the hill and ensure that they find a better place to settle.

In total, the cyclone killed 679 with 537 others still missing in the southern region.

Apart from upper areas, the cyclone also hit hard in Chikwawa and Nsanje. And authorities there have now rolled out activities to plant trees in hills including Mwamphanzi-Masenjere escarpment, along rivers and public sites like schools and hospitals.

Chikwawa District forestry officer, Hecta Mkawihe tells us that with support from partners and individuals like a Catholic Priest Fr James Chidali, they have made tremendous progress in bringing back the environment.

“People cut down trees for brick burning, charcoal and firewood that are transported and used in Blantyre. We are trying our best to both enforce the law and plant more trees,” said Mkawihe, saying they are also promoting natural regeneration. He added that deforestation incidents are high  in Chapananga area.

On his part, Fr Chidali said he decided to participate in encouraging communities to plant and take care of trees to reduce perennial disasters that hit the Shire valley.

“With the cyclones that have been hitting, we need to join hands in bringing back the depleted forests,” said Fr Chidali who is also a Rector of Mzimu Woyera Minor Seminary.

Apart from encouraging surrounding communities in tree planting and care, the priest also does bee farming and planted fruit trees along Shire river in Kasisi area.

This comes when statistics from the department of Forestry indicate that 52 million trees were planted in Malawi during the 2022-2023 tree planting season, although others question that Malawi is good at planting trees than taking care of them.

Environmentalist Maloto Chinkombero says the aftermath of cyclone Freddy should work as a lesson to Malawi to protect hills and mountains amid massive encroachment for settlement and farming.

“We should not wait for another disaster to strike, let us prepare now, let us stop all illegal activities and settlements. Sustainable measures should also be put in place to plant more trees in hills and along rivers,” said Chinkombero.

Malawi Vice President, Dr Saulos Chilima has since asked cyclone Freddy survivors that are living in hills to move out.

“Hills are not safe places for settlement, they need to be protected by planting more trees,” said Dr Chilima whose sentiments were shared by former Presidents, Dr Bakili Muluzi and Dr Joyce Banda.

Sustainable Development Goal 15 aims to protect, restore, and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss.

And it is not known if Malawi will achieve this by 2030 looking at the ongoing massive deforestation where people are cutting down trees carelessly for firewood, charcoal production, timber making, brick burning, farming and settlement. Certainly, Malawi has paid a heavy price for tolerating its citizens to live in hills. But there is hope if better decisions are taken.

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