Local Government Minister July Moyo has warned of a major crisis around Zimbabwe’s towns and cities where much of agricultural land is been converted into urban settlements. It is, in fact, a double crisis because urbanisation itself is pushing councils to the limits: agricultural land and urban growth are on a collision course.
Yet the situation could be minimised or at least slowed down with a bit of forward thinking and commitment by local authorities, both rural and urban. But there has been a lot of lethargy when it comes to acting appropriately.
Minister Moyo is not the first one to raise the red flag over unplanned urban settlements. What we are not sure about is whether our councils still employ town planners to advise councillors or the bureaucrats themselves have been so corrupted they don’t care what’s going on. Or politics now determines the allocation of land, always mindful of elections.
The result is that corrupt individuals with political connections seem to unilaterally take over any empty piece of land, cut into pieces and sell it as residential stands. This includes wetlands, which has led to massive soil erosion, flash-flooding during summer periods and a serious lowering of the water table around urban areas.
More seriously, these unplanned settlements do not have ablution facilities of any sort, hence the frequent outbreak of diseases at the onset of the rainy season. Not to mention that much of the dirt is washed into dams, resulting in the City of Harare, for instance, needing up to seven chemicals to make its water potable.
Yet all these challenges are only symptoms of a deeper and burgeoning crisis unless action is taken urgently. Minister Moyo said at least 45 000 hectares of agricultural land had been settled in the past 10 years. That could possibly be an understatement even.
The urgent action we are alluding to is not novel, only that there has been no action. Over the years Government has called on town planners to think about high-rise accommodation structures. These not only take up smaller space but by proportion they accommodate more people per square metre. A single block of flats can accommodate several families in fairly big rooms on a piece of land traditionally occupied by one family.
What we see at the moment is complete lack of foresight about the near future. Land is a finite resource regardless of whether we are talking of rural or urban areas. In fact, even in rural areas where in the past land seemed to be unexhaustible, conflict between humans and wild animals has become common. Grazing land is getting scarce in some areas due to uncontrolled human settlement.
What all this does expose is a generation which doesn’t think about its legacy to the next.
Perhaps one way to make local authorities and companies act along the high-rise residential accommodation is for Government to insist that every planned new residential scheme must incorporate in it a block or blocks of flats. This should be mandatory, without which development should come with a penalty. We owe future generations legacies of land, fresh water, fresh air and generally a clean environment.
Errors were made in the past when a single individual could be allocated hectares of land in urban areas. Some are subdividing this for resale. But few think in terms of flats. We are still of the flat earth theory.
It is clear, however, that this is unsustainable and if companies and local authorities are blind to this reality, then Government must come up with a law which makes flats a compulsory element in every new residential scheme. That won’t stop urbanisation, but at least it reduces the pace at which human settlement is gobbling up farmland and the spectre of food insecurity, especially in urban areas. The time to act is now, tomorrow could be too late.