Zimbabwe rebuilds rural homes to withstand climate changes

As Zimbabwe faces more and more extreme weather caused by climate change, traditional rural homes made from soil and wood are being destroyed. The government has issued new standards in an effort to encourage builders to switch to more durable materials.

Farai Shawn Matiashe/Thomson Reuters Foundation/File
Albert Sabawe sits in the garden of his flimsy riverside house, which risks being swept away if another cyclone strikes again this year, in eastern Zimbabwe's Chimanimani district, December 23, 2019.

For Florence Panda, the best thing about her new house in eastern Zimbabwe is not the modern design or the size, big enough for her family of nine.

It’s the fact that the house is built with cement bricks and mortar, so it should stay standing through a major storm – unlike her last home.

Ms. Panda lost her previous house in Ndiadzo village, in Manicaland province, when Cyclone Idai tore through Zimbabwe in 2019, destroying an estimated 50,000 homes.

Built from farm bricks – made locally from anthill soil – and pit sand mixed with water, the house was washed away by the heavy rains, leaving Ms. Panda’s family homeless.

A year later, they moved into a place built by the government to a new set of standards aimed at making rural homes more resilient to extreme weather and tackling the tree loss that worsens damage from climate change impacts like floods.

“It was devastating to lose our dwellings and everything that belonged to us in just one night,” Ms. Panda told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone. ”For over a year, we lived in tents, so we were elated to get a new house – it was such a huge relief.”

As rising temperatures drive increasingly destructive storms and floods, Zimbabwe is rewriting the rules on how and where homes should be built to help rural communities get through the worst of the weather.

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

Percy Toriro, a city planning expert in Harare, said this marks the first time the construction of rural homes in the southern African country will be as carefully regulated as house-building in its cities.

“Whereas urban housing has always been fairly safe due to the strict standards of planning and construction, rural housing was never subjected to any standards or inspection,” he said. ”Recent cyclones have brought everyone to a realization that poor housing is vulnerable. In our settlements, sustainability must be the goal.”

Government data from 2017 showed 80% of homes in rural areas were either wholly or partially made of traditional materials like farm bricks.

In contrast, 98% of urban houses were built using modern materials and techniques.

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

With help from partners, including the International Organization for Migration, the World Bank, and the African Development Bank, the construction drive focuses on Manicaland and two western districts, Tsholotsho and Binga, all areas that have been hit hardest by harsh weather.

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

The Ministry of National Housing and Social Amenities did not respond to requests for comment.

Slowing deforestation

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

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

He said most of the houses destroyed in storms were the type locally known as “pole and dagga” huts, made of wood, anthill soil, and thatch but no cement, so they quickly become soaked and weak in the incessant rains and fall apart.

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

The policy says councils should ensure all new builds use materials and methods that are “economic, sustainable, [and] resilient” – for example, by insisting that homes are built with cement bricks and all construction is registered.

To curb the negative impacts of house-building on the environment, the policy bans the use of temporary wooden shacks in mining and farming compounds and prohibits building on wetlands, which are vital ecosystems that provide a natural buffer against flooding.

Mr. Mutasa, who is also president of the Association of Rural District Councils of Zimbabwe, said Makoni council is already making sure all new homes are made of cement bricks and fining anyone who cuts down trees for wood to bake farm bricks.

Nationwide, the penalty for unauthorized tree felling is between 5,000 and 50,000 Zimbabwe dollars ($13-$133).

The process of making farm bricks is a significant contributor to deforestation in Zimbabwe, said Violet Makoto, spokesperson for the country’s Forestry Commission.

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

Costly standards

Not everyone is happy about the new housing policy, with some local authorities saying they have faced push-back.

Cost is the major issue, especially when people who use traditional methods can get most of their materials – like wood and soil – for free, said Mr. Toriro, the planning expert.

After the government built her home in Ndiadzo village, Ms. Panda spent $500 to add on three more rooms that comply with the new guidelines.

“Some people don’t have the money to build modern houses, let alone to the required standards,” she said. ”My husband and I survive by doing odd jobs, but we worked hard to get the money to extend our house.”

Mr. Mutasa, chairman of the Makoni council, said he did not know of any plans for the government to help people cover the cost of building to the new standards.

Still, he added, local authorities should stay resolute in their efforts to slow deforestation and stem the practice of makeshift construction.

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

This story was reported by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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