Chapter 8: Human Habitat

 Human Habitat
 8.0 Introduction

The major components of a human settlement include adequate and affordable shelter; safe and affordable drinking water and appropriate management systems for domestic and industrial waste. In the absence of these, human settlements become environmentally unsustainable.

Human habitat degradation is a process by which human settlements are rendered unsuitable and hazardous for people living in them. The Malawi economy is not well developed owing to a narrow resource base. With very low per capita incomes, the rampant poverty among the people prevents the majority of Malawians from owning or leasing decent living quarters.
 8.1 State of human habits

8.1.1 Rapid urban population growth

The national population has increased almost three-fold from about 4 million persons at the time of independence in 1964 to around 11 million persons in 1996. It is expected that the population will double in the next twenty years.

During the past decade, migration tended to be predominantly from one rural area to another. However, rural-urban migration has increased in recent years and the current annual rate of urban population growth is estimated at 6.7%. The urban population is projected to increase by 400% from less than one million in 1988 to about 3.8 million in 2012 or, in relative terms, from 11% of the national population to 23% (Fig. 8.1). The four major urban areas, which account for the bulk of urban residents are Blantyre (39%); Lilongwe (26%) Mzuzu and Zomba, 5% each. The remaining 25% live in smaller towns.

The high rate of urbanisation has important implications for housing considering that the formal sector cannot cope with the enormous demand for land for housing and accompanying services. Therefore, the majority of urban households will continue to look for housing facilities in the informal sector (i.e. squatter/ unplanned settlements) and in site and services schemes known as Traditional Housing Areas (THAs), often with little access to basic services and facilities.

8.1.2 Shortage of permanent houses and plots

The government's housing policy since independence emphasized direct provision of housing by the government and the Malawi Housing Corporation (MHC). The MHC was created in 1963 as a statutory corporation with mandate to undertake the development, construction and management of housing throughout the country for all sections of the population on a viable commercial basis. In an attempt to narrow the widening gap between supply and demand, X was decided to concentrate on the development of THAs in parallel with the construction of conventional housing units in most urban and district centres.

Table 8.1: Permanent Houses Built in Lilongwe city

Year Number
1964 515
1966 67
1972 43
1977 250
1991 1854
1997 40
Total 2769

Source: Malawi Housing Corporation [Return]

By 1981 MHC had built 5274 houses at an average rate of about 310 dwellings per annum with 45% of these houses in Blantyre, 48 % in Lilongwe and the rest in the towns of Zomba, Mzuzu, Kasungu and smaller centres. In addition, the Capital City Development Corporation (CCDC) built 870 permanent houses during the period 1968 to 1980, in Lilongwe, mainly of the low-density type.

While MHC provided only 515 permanent houses in Lilongwe in l964, this figure had risen to a total of 2,769 houses by 1997 (Table 8.1). However, the number of outstanding applications for permanent houses still on the waiting list has significantly outstripped this growth in the number of housing units (Fig. 8.2).

Traditional Housing Areas (THA), which comprise planned and unplanned settlements, form the largest category of urban housing in Malawi. In 1993 these settlements accounted for 82 % and 72 % of Blantyre and Lilongwe cities respectively.

At the beginning of the 1990's there were about 32,000 THA plots in Malawi and a waiting list for over 66,000 (World Bank, 1992). In addition to the backlog on the official waiting list, there were other categories of people who needed serviced plots, such as the population living in unplanned settlements and those sharing accommodation through subletting. The actual need for serviced plots is much larger than the 66,000 recorded in MHC's waiting list as some people do not bother to apply.

By 1993, an average annual production of at least 4,500 housing units was needed (including THA plots) to meet the excess demand and the expected increase in urban population. However, budgetary constraints have since led to a reduction in construction of permanent housing and the development of THA plots, further aggravating the growing shortage of housing.

Until recently, the majority of houses built by MHC were for letting, mainly to civil servants and private companies. For its part, the government has traditionally owned a substantial stock of pool and institutional houses most of which are now privatized. A number of parastatals and private companies have also built rental housing for their staff.

8.1.3 Proliferation of squatter / unplanned settlements in urban areas

The excessive demand for housing in the formal housing market has led to two important developments. First, has been the significant increase in squatting in recent years and the escalation in the use of plots within the THAs for rental purposes, a function for which they were not originally designed. Second, the quality of rental housing in both unplanned and planned THAs has drastically declined and the areas are characterized by severe congestion and poor sanitation.

Squatter settlements do not have the necessary basic services essential to maintain a satisfactory and healthy living. Most squatters lack good vehicular access, fire fighting and refuse collection services. Related to this is lack of drainage channels, which results in water logging and pending of both surface rainwater and waste effluent. Lack of safe drinking water means that squatters have to depend on untreated and sometimes polluted sources of water for their domestic needs.

Furthermore, the overcrowded conditions pose a high risk of exposure to communicable diseases (such as measles, meningitis and tuberculosis, cholera) and are closely associated with high stress levels, frequent accidents, fires and poisoning. Inadequate housing design provides insect vectors with new living space.

While squatter/unplanned housing areas have been officially ignored the situation is so overwhelming that the need to provide at least some basic facilities to these areas has recently been recognised (Roe, 1992).

8.1.4 State of rural housing

About 88% of the population live in rural areas with subsistence farming and fishing as it S predominant economic base. Although it is believed that the rural population caters for itself in terms of housing, there are problems related to quality of houses occupied by the majority of the people. Most houses are poorly constructed traditional huts using mud and wattle or mud bricks for walls, rammed earth for floors and poles with grass thatch for roofs. Although these materials are initially relatively inexpensive, they are not durable and require frequent replacement. With the expanding agriculture, the source of building materials is dwindling.
 8.2 Response indicators

8.2.1 Policy and Institutional Initiatives

A number of initiatives and interventions have been undertaken aimed at both the mitigation of the adverse effects of settlements in urban and rural areas and planning for future situations. However, most of these initiatives and interventions are yet to be finalized and implemented. Some of these include:

Housing policy and legislation

The Government, through the Department of Housing in the Ministry of Lands, Housing, Physical Planning and Surveys, has drafted a National Housing Policy which is due to be finalized and adopted. However, accompanying legislation is yet to be prepared.

The Department has, among its functions, the responsibility for the implementation of a rural housing programme and the management of the home ownership scheme for civil servants.

Institutional framework.

The Department of Housing co-ordinates the institutional framework for issues on urban and rural habitat.

Within the existing framework, MHC is responsible for construction of permanent housing units both for renting and selling. It is also responsible for the development and management of THAs where people who cannot afford to rent or buy conventional housing units can build their own house on serviced plots. Recently, the government has embarked on a restructuring exercise of the MHC with a view to enable it to operate on a commercially viable basis and participate more effectively in providing housing for the people. Under this programme, MHC will concentrate its efforts on land and property development for sale. Th Corporation will eventually hand over the development and management of THAs to the local authorities as they themselves build up their capability to perform this function. The THAs in the cities of Blantyre, Lilongwe and Mzuzu are already in the hands of city councils.

Research programmes

The Rural Housing Programme was launched in 1981 in order to address the problems of shortage and quality of housing in rural areas. The programme had three phases. Phase one focused on research and development of alternative low cost building materials and construction techniques as well as on the development of alternative house designs. Phase two saw the introduction of a credit system established to assist the beneficiaries to build low cost houses, as well as to train artisans engaged in the production of building materials for construction of low cost houses. Phase three was geared towards the strengthening of the operations of the Rural Housing Programme especially the revolving fund and formation of Rural Housing Development Groups. However, the programme was suspended in 1993 partly due to insufficient funding and other operational problems.

Implementation of the NEAP Recommendations

The NEAP recommended a number of measures to improve human habitat including: to expand the existing low cost housing schemes to rural areas and THAs in urban areas; to speed up allocation of plots for THAs and medium to low density areas; to review development charges to facilitate speedy plot development, and finally, to review ground and property rents.

Almost all THAs in the cities of Lilongwe, Mzuzu and Blantyre have been transferred to the respective local authorities since 1992, but the city councils do not have the financial resources nor the administrative capacity to run and maintain existing THAs, let alone to develop new ones.

8.2.2 Sanitation

The Malawi Social Indicators Survey (1996) revealed that only 6% of the Malawi population has access to safe sanitary facilities located within a convenient distance of dwellings. The extremely low figure is attributed to the high use of traditional pit latrines, which is not considered to be a safe form of sanitation. Table 8.2 shows the extent of access to sanitation in 1995.

The five major urban centres (Blantyre, Lilongwe, Liwonde, Mzuzu, and Zomba) have off-site sewage systems. However, the sewage systems experience frequent breakdowns at treatment plants and blockages of sewer lines due to poor maintenance as a result of lack of spare parts, improper design of some sections, and also lack of public awareness on proper use of the sewerage systems.

Table 8.3: Solid waste generation rates 1995

Urban centre
Estimated population
Total waste
Waste collected
% Waste collected

Source: Malawi Social Indicators Survey [Return]

Other sanitation problems in major towns include the following:

  • extensive use of unimproved pit latrines;
  • overflowing soakways and septic tanks;
  • inadequate sludge tankers;
  • inadequate and untreated sewage disposal in open areas; and
  • over-utilised school and public toilets in major towns.
Sanitation has recently become a major cause of concern in THAs and squatter areas especially in major urban areas in Malawi. Outbreaks of cholera and other waterborne diseases resulting from poor sanitation have caused national alarm. It became clear that the waterborne sewage and sewage disposal treatment plants in Blantyre need expansion and regular maintenance.

8.2.3 Lack of refuse collection and disposal services in THAs

The continued growth of the population is already placing major constraints and demands on the provision of waste management services (Table 8.3).

In Lilongwe City not more than 30% of the total solid waste generated is collected, perhaps an indication that most people dispose their solid waste spontaneously. In addition, low maintenance and non-replacement of facilities by local authorities have resulted in a reduction of waste collection regimes. In Lilongwe City, the annual waste collection by lorry and skip was reduced from about 6,000 tons/year in 1991 to 4,000 tons/year in 1997 (Fig. 8.3).

It is important to point out that, in most cases, the rural population dispose waste by dumping, and since the production of waste is generally low, and there is plenty of land to assimilate the dumped material, the need for an institutionalized system of collection and disposal is minimal. Perhaps what is needed is community education in proper methods of waste disposal and in community-based recycling systems at village level.

The problem of refuse grows with population density and wealth. Though domestic wastes are rarely toxic, they are capable of providing sites for the breeding of disease vectors as well becoming a nuisance.

Another growing health risk caused by inadequate solid waste management is that associated with careless disposal of toxic and radioactive materials, in particular clinical waste.

A good number of industries in Malawi face problems with the disposal of their industrial waste. Solid waste is dumped outside the premises or at open sites elsewhere, and effluent is discharged into septic tanks.

8.2.4 Response indicators

Sanitation Polity and Legislation Malawi does not yet have a national policy on sanitation. This stems from the fact that no specific government authority was responsible for sanitation. However, a sanitation policy and legislation are in the process of development under the NATURE programme. 

Institutional framework In major urban areas of Malawi, the provision of sanitation and sewage services is the responsibility of the respective town, municipality and city councils. The councils ensure the overall development, implementation, operation and maintenance of the sewage systems. In addition, they are responsible for providing an emptying service for septic tanks and pit latrines. Construction of pit latrines and septic tanks, however, is the responsibility of the developers of THAs. The tenant nominally builds replacement pit latrines through the Malawi Housing Corporation or respective urban council. Other national players include the Environmental Health Section in the Ministry of Health and Population and the Ministry of Water development through the water resources board. 
 8.3 Water supply for human habitat

8.3.1 Access to safe drinking water

Water is an essential element of human settlement. Adequate and safe water supply greatly determine the quality of human habitat. The qualities of water in terms of taste, odour, turbidity and, more importantly, freedoms from water-born diseases in turn determine the quality of living for human beings. Chapter 6 has dealt with the issues on water in Malawi. This section will therefore focus on those issues directly affecting households and human settlement.

Table 8.5 Use and accessibility (%) of safe water, by region and residence

Access to safe water (<0.5km)
Access to safe water (<1 km)

Source Malawi Social Indicators Survey [Return]

In Malawi, only 37% of the population has access to safe water for drinking located within a distance of less than 500 metres (Table 8.4).

The major constraint to achieving greater access to safe water has been limited funding which has also partly contributed to lack of capacity to maintain the drinking water facilities. Most sources of household water are unprotected wells and springs. Boreholes provide considerable amounts of safe drinking water but the most common source of household water in the urban areas is a public tap.

By August 1990, Malawi had 7,450 drilled boreholes and 3,500 protected hand dug wells with pumps installed, and there were 55 rural piped water schemes. The number of people served by these facilities was 4 million. This left 3.40 million without access to improved water supply, of whom a small proportion were using protected wells (Water Department, 1990)

However, about 30% of the nation's water facilities were out of order at any one time by mid 1990, due to breakdowns and drying of water sources from drought. Furthermore, some of the rural piped schemes were not fully operational throughout the year as long term problems have developed such as insufficient water to meet the demand due to large population increases (in-migration), and major breakdowns requiring rehabilitation of the scheme.

8.3.2 Lack of affordable safe drinking water

For rural communities, safe drinking water is provided through public taps, boreholes or is obtained from protected wells or springs located either on the premises or less than 500 metres away. Accessibility to safe water remains quite low, at about 37%, and that the majority of rural communities have to travel long distances in search of water.

The level of household income determines the situation for the communities in urban and pert-urban areas. Safe water for these areas is dependent on communal tap water points and private pipes for which a charge is levied by the concerned water supply authority. Permanent housing units are generally supplied with water pipes and private taps while the THAs and the unplanned housing areas have to rely, to a greater extent, on water vendors. Enterprising individuals who can afford to get a water tap installed by a water supply authority engage in the business of selling water to the residents of these areas. It has been observed that the general price of the safe water is higher than these communities can afford. This situation forces them to source water from hand dug wells, rivers and peri-urban streams that are unprotected, often polluted and unsafe (Box 8.1).

8.3.3 Response indicators

Household water supply Policy and Legislation

The Ministry of Water Development implements the water policy through five Water Boards (statutory corporations). The Ministry has developed clear policies and strategies for the improvement of water resources under the National Water Development Programme since the NEAP was approved in 1994.

Implementation of NEAP Recommendations

The NEAP recommended that government should endeavour to: provide treated water to urban populations and expand provision of boreholes and other water schemes to rural communities; rehabilitate non-functioning piped water systems and boreholes; introduce more community based water management systems as well as regular assessment of water quality.

The implementation of these recommendations is under way. The establishment of the three regional water boards as statutory corporations is aimed at speeding up the process. Chapter 6 provides more detail on some of the actions already taken by government in this respect.
 8.4 Water Pollution

8.4.1 Water pollution due to human waste

Human waste disposal in the rural areas is a cause for concern especially in the rainy season. Rural households with no on site sanitation, discharge excreta in the open thereby making the surface water sources susceptible to contamination through direct discharge of rain water. In the urban areas some households discharge waste directly into watercourses as well.

As a result of inadequate sanitation facilities, the biological quality of the major rivers is poor throughout the year (see also Chapter 6).

With increasing urbanization, the frequent breakdowns and blockages of sewage systems and industrial treatment facilities will obviously result in water pollution.

8.4.2 Water Pollution Due to Chemicals

Increased flow of chemicals (fertilizers, pesticides and fungicides) from agricultural land and irrigation schemes, and discharge of arsenic compounds from dip tanks have led to eutrophication and salinisation of water bodies and soils. Eutrophication has created favourable conditions for the growth of algae, which have consequently reduced available oxygen for higher forms of aquatic life such as fish.

Use of chemicals to control insects, pests, weeds and fungi is not widespread, but overuse in certain localities especially in estates threatens the health of humans and the lives of other species. Continuing, long-term exposure to pesticides and chemical residue in food, water and even in the air is hazardous, particularly to children. The effects are not limited to the area where pesticides are used but travel through the food chain.

8.4.3 Response indicators

Since the publication of the NEAP and enactment of the Environmental Management Act, a number of interventions to address waste management and sanitation problems have been started. It is expected that the momentum generated through the NATURE programme will produce further legal instruments that can assist the regulation and management of the problem.

Chapter References:

 Contents | Foreword  | Acknowlegdements | Editorial Process 
Contributors | Preface | Acronyms  | Overview
Chapters: | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | Appendix I
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