The Sunday Mail
Sunday Mail Reporter
The battle between man and Mother Nature is as old as civilisation itself.
However, there are countries such as Japan, Mozambique and Madagascar that have often been disastrously caught up in this formidable battle, through which nature often always wins.
But climate change means more and more countries such as Zimbabwe are becoming increasingly vulnerable to the vagaries of extreme weather conditions such as cyclones.
Government, experts say, should budget for more weather-related disasters.
Mr Samuel Kusangaya, who is a geographic information systems (GIS) and remote sensing expert, said such calamitous events are likely to increase both in “frequency and magnitude”.
“Studies from Southern Africa have shown that extreme events (for example, droughts and floods) are increasing in frequency and magnitude. These extreme events are heavily influenced by El Niño-Southern Oscillations, which are becoming more intense as a result of climate change. For example, in Southern Africa, the frequency of droughts is projected to increase and will most likely increase the frequency of extreme low flows and low storage episodes. These will inevitably affect aquatic ecosystems, water supply, irrigation, leisure, and hydro power generation,” he said in an article written for The Sunday Mail.
In the past six decades, Zimbabwe has been affected by four cyclones — Eline (2001), Japhet (2003), Ava (2018) and Idai (2019).
But it is the sheer devastation caused by Cyclone Idai — which obliterated swathes of settlements in areas such as Ngangu, Rusitu and Kopa in Manicaland province — that has prompted Government to consider weatherproof structures for areas that are prone to such disasters. In a statement on March 21, soon after visiting the cyclone-affected areas, President Emmerson Mnangagwa noted that Government will “support the rebuilding of stronger and more durable structures of shelter for our rural communities starting with families in susceptible areas”.
“Our whole approach to build environments,” he said, “just has to change in light of experience of this deadly cyclone.”
Experts say building standards, particularly those in rural areas, have to be subjected to the same standards and tests as urban structures.
Most of the houses that were destroyed by the strong rains and wind accompanying Cyclone Idai — considered the worst-ever weather-related disaster to affect the Southern Hemisphere — reportedly buckled owing to poor quality building materials.
Rural and urban planning consultant Mr Percy Toriro said a standard rural housing policy was long overdue, but he cautioned that it had to be informed by empirical research.
“We need to relook how we build our houses in rural areas because we concentrate on cities and we end up forgetting that we should maintain the same standards in rural areas too,” said Mr Toriro.
“In light of the recent disaster, it wasn’t really about the building material, but where the houses were built. The same brick and motor we have been using over the years are still adequate if we adapt our settlements to the environment surrounding us.”
But there is an added challenge presented by haphazard and sparsely populated settlements, which, in the event of natural disasters, make rescue efforts difficult. Mr Tinashe Nyambuya, of Nyambuya and Associates Architects, said rural settlements cannot escape the strictures associated with building robust and durable structures, which has to be planned by experts.
“The architectural design of the buildings and structures of communities in disaster-prone areas must strictly adhere to the local authority model building by-laws, town planning regulations and area construction codes. The materials used for construction must be robust, durable and certified by the Standards Association of Zimbabwe (SAZ). Materials such as concrete, steel, kiln-fired clay bricks and well-seasoned timber stand better chances of surviving natural disasters than materials such as plastic sheets, raw clay or mud, untreated timber poles and grass (straw),” he said.
Building techniques used, he added, must be proven and the construction workmanship must be of a high standard and quality.
Developed countries are already exploring various technological solutions to natural disasters. Over the years, countries such as Japan — which is often affected by earthquakes — have been routinely reviewing their building standards after every disaster. Not surprisingly, the collapse ratio of buildings in Japan is relatively low.
In fact, all buildings in Japan are required to have an earthquake-resistant structure, which means that new construction can only be approved after rigorous compliance with earthquake-proof standards that are prescribed by law.
The country’s Building Standard Act is always “strictly reviewed” every time the country experiences a large earthquake.
Interestingly, Tokyo insists on four building materials — wood, steel, reinforced concrete, and steel-reinforced concrete.
As weather conditions are becoming extreme, so, too, have adaptation strategies to climate change. The Bjarke Ingels Group, a Copenhagen-based assembly of architects, recently made a proposal to the United Nations to develop floating cities as a response to disasters such as floods and earthquakes. The group, along with a cross-disciplinary team of engineers, inventors, artists, and thinkers, unveiled Oceanix City, an interconnected network of buoyant islands.
According to the group, these units can be linked together and scaled up to form unitary city blocks, neighbourhoods, or entire cities.
These speculative settlements are said to be entirely self-reliant, subsiding off of water collected, desalinised, and stored on-site, with food grown through aquaponics and vertical farming.
While the Oceanix City project may sound a futuristic idea in Zimbabwean context, Mr Toriro said Zimbabwe should do its own research to determine the solutions which are affordable and adaptable to its environment.
“It’s good to be innovative and ambitious, but at the end of the day, the solution has to be affordable and specific to your own problems,” he said.
Zimbabwe has not had a standard rural housing policy and settlements in the countryside have tended to be haphazard. Houses are often constructed with unskilled builders using pole and dagga. This has seen rural communities suffering massive destruction due to natural disasters.