Zimbabwe, hard hit by storms and forest loss, is building stronger homes

It’s a fact that the house is built with cement bricks and mortar, so it should have kept standing during a heavy storm – unlike her last home.

Banda, 34, lost her former home in Ndiadzu village, Manicaland province, when Cyclone Idai swept through Zimbabwe in 2019, destroying an estimated 50,000 homes.

Built from bricks – locally made from anthill soil – and pit sand mixed with water, the heavy rains washed away, leaving the panda family homeless.

A year later, they moved to a government-built venue to a new set of standards aimed at making rural homes more resilient to harsh weather and addressing tree loss that exacerbates damage from climate change impacts such as floods.

“Losing our homes and everything about us has been devastating in just one night,” Banda told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

“For over a year, we’ve been living in tents, so we were happy to get a new home – it was a huge relief to us.”

As rising temperatures bring increasingly devastating storms and floods, Zimbabwe is rewriting the rules for how and where to build homes to help rural communities weather the worst of weather.

New standards and policy recommendations in the National Human Settlements Policy also encourage Zimbabweans to move away from traditional building methods that rely heavily on timber and soil, which contributes to widespread deforestation.

Percy Torero, a city planning expert in Harare, said this is the first time that the construction of country houses in the South African country has been regulated as carefully as the construction of homes in its cities.

“While urban housing has always been somewhat safe due to strict planning and construction standards, rural housing has never been subject to any standards or inspections,” he said.

“The recent hurricanes have made everyone realize that poor housing is at risk. In our settlements, sustainability must be the goal.”

Government data from 2017 showed that 80% of homes in rural areas were either made wholly or partly from traditional materials such as farmhouse bricks.

In contrast, 98% of urban homes are built using modern materials and technologies.

Since the policy was approved in 2020, the Zimbabwean government has built 700 permanent homes for people displaced by natural disasters, said Nathan Nkomo, director of the Department of Civil Protection, the state’s disaster response agency that helped shape the new building standards.

With the help of partners, including the International Organization for Migration, the World Bank and the African Development Bank, the construction campaign is focusing on Manicaland and the two western regions, Cholocho and Benga, all areas hard hit by bad weather.

“We have to come up with settlements that meet the requirements of habitable architecture,” Nkomo said.

The Department of National Housing and Social Facilities did not respond to requests for comment.

slow down deforestation

Zimbabwe has become increasingly vulnerable to powerful storms over the past few years.

Most recently, in January of this year, Tropical Storm Anna left a trail of devastation across 18 counties and affected more than 1,300 households, according to Nkomo.

Most of the houses destroyed in the storms, he said, were of the type known locally as “Qutb and Daga” huts, made of wood, anthill soil and straw but without cement, so they quickly became soaked and weak in the constant rain and disintegrated.

David Mutasa, Chairman of Makoni Rural District Council, said the new settlements policy is not enshrined in legislation, but creates the legal framework for local authorities to introduce by-laws that should bring homes in rural Zimbabwe into compliance with national and international standards.

The policy states that councils must ensure that all new buildings use “economic and sustainable (and resilient)” materials and methods – for example, by insisting that homes are built with cement bricks and that all construction is recorded.

To reduce the negative effects of housing construction on the environment, the policy prohibits the use of temporary log huts in mining and agricultural complexes and prohibits construction on wetlands, which are vital ecosystems that provide a natural buffer against flooding.

Mutasa, who is also president of the Zimbabwe Rural Councils Association, said Makone Council is already working to make sure all new homes are made of cement bricks and has fined anyone who cuts trees for wood to bake bricks on farms.

Nationwide, the penalty for unauthorized logging is between 5,000 and 50,000 Zimbabwe dollars (13 to 133 USD).

Violet Makoto, a spokeswoman for the country’s Forestry Commission, said the agricultural brick making process contributes significantly to deforestation in Zimbabwe.

“It’s an area of ​​concern – it’s always been a big industry and it continues to grow,” she said.

expensive standards

Not everyone is happy with the new housing policy, with some local authorities saying they have run into bottlenecks.

Torero, the planning expert, said cost is the main issue, particularly when people using traditional methods can get most of their materials — like wood and soil — for free.

After the government built her home in the village of Ndiadzo, Florence Panda spent $500 to add three more rooms in line with the new guidelines.

“Some people don’t have the money to build modern homes, let alone the standards required,” she said.

“My husband and I live by doing odd jobs, but we worked hard to get the money to expand our house.”

Mutasa, Chairman of Makoni Council, said he was not aware of any plans by the government to help people cover the cost of construction under the new standards.

However, he added, local authorities have to remain resolute in their efforts to slow deforestation and stop the practice of temporary construction.

Otherwise, he said, allowing people to keep cutting down trees to build flimsy homes “will come back to haunt us.”

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