A Crisis of Biblical Proportions

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Climate change is already impacting billions of people worldwide. Floods. Droughts. Climate migration… The enormity of the crisis at hand can make it easy to lose sight of the individuals who are impacted. Like Grace Chileshe Chanda, a 21 year old Zambian climate activist, who's agreed to show us what climate change and the damage from increasingly heavy rains and floods looks like up close in Mtendere - the largest and oldest township in the country’s capital, Lusaka.

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Chanda: I think this should be Mtendere if I’m not, if, if I’m not mistaken.

Lesedi: It’s Sunday morning in Zambia and our youth reporter, Chanda Chabala, is in Mtendere. One of the largest and oldest townships in the country’s capital, Lusaka.

Chanda: Yeah, there are just people walking around. People are going to church today. It’s Sunday. So yeah. Everybody’s going to church. Others are coming back from church. Hi, how are you?

Grace: I’m doing awesome. And how are you?

Lesedi: That’s Grace Chileshe Chanda. Grace is a 21 year old climate activist who lives in Mtendere.

Grace: Yeah. As you can see, it’s a very busy street. There are a lot of people that are doing their businesses from here. There’s so many shops here. Yeah. Um, Mtendere, it’s a very good place. Uh, I would say we live in peace together.

Lesedi: We live in peace, says Grace. In fact, Mtendere means peace, but it’s also a challenging place to live. You see, Mtendere started out as an informal settlement in the 1960s. Houses were made of grass or mud. Today some of them are made of bricks and metal. Access to clean water and proper sanitation remain a struggle. There are not enough schools and jobs and roads are poorly maintained. Grace and her family do what they can to make ends meet.

Grace: As long as you have the best support system, you have a family that works together that’s willing to put money together so that you can achieve something, yeah, it makes lives better.

Lesedi: But there’s one more problem. Climate change.

Grace: Oh, okay. So when we have heavy rains here.

Chanda: Yeah?

Grace: Like this place is usually flooded. And even the houses in the streets, they’re usually flooded. And it’s not even healthy for the people. They, there might be an outbreak of Cholera, uh, due to the same water just standing still here.

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Lesedi: Climate change is impacting billions of people worldwide. Daily… Floods, droughts, climate, migration. With the enormity of it all, it’s easy to lose sight of the individuals who are impacted, like Grace, who’s agreed to show us what climate change looks like up close in Mtendere and even at her house.

Grace: I would say 20 minutes.

Chanda: Walking?

Grace: Yeah.

Chanda: Is it walking that you like?

Grace: I just like walking, you know. To reduce ont carbon emissions. I just have to walk. You know as a climate activist.

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Lesedi: This is Radio Workshop. I’m Lesedi Mogoathle.

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António Guterres: I thank our hosts, the Egyptian government and COP 27 President, Samir Shukri, for their hospitality. I also want to recognize Simon Steele and the United Nations Climate Change team.

Lesedi: In Mtendere and throughout Zambia and the continent, heavy rains have triggered deadly floods. Houses have collapsed, bridges have fallen, and roads have cracked…

António Guterres: …a crisis of biblical proportions…

Lesedi: Raging waters have knocked out sewage systems and polluted clean water supplies. Crops have been destroyed, threatening food security. These consequences of climate change are often referred to as loss and damage.

António Guterres: I welcome the decision to establish a loss and damage fund and to operationalize it in the coming period.

Lesedi: That’s the United Nations Secretary General, António Guterres, speaking at the Global Climate Talks hosted in Egypt last year. He’s announcing a major breakthrough, a loss and damage fund. It’ll support countries with not enough resources to recover from climate disasters. Rich, more developed nations, you know, the ones who have contributed more to climate change will have to pay up.

António Guterres: Clearly this will not be enough, but it is a much needed political signal to rebuild broken trust. The voices of those on the front lines of the climate crisis must be heard.

Grace: When it rains here, we are gets of so much floods because…

Lesedi: Rainfall patterns are changing in Zambia, and storms are more intense, coupled with bad drainage, and that rainwater accumulates on the streets of Mtendere. It enters homes, it carries sand into drains clogging them even more. Part of the reason for that is that there was never any plan behind how roads or houses were laid out. The drainage system is highly insufficient. And so when it rains, the area simply cannot handle the water.

Chanda: It’s covered.

Grace: Yeah, it’s covered. Totally covered. And you can see the water has nowhere to go.

Chanda: Garbage in the drainages or maybe the wind blows, the, the garbage in, the drainage?

Grace: It’s both the wind and people are throwing garbage in the water. So this is why, this is why we’re saying that water has nowhere to move ‘cause of the garbage. As you can see there, that’s someone just through that, those chihuahua leaves there. Yeah. And the water can’t move.

Chanda: Okay. Let’s proceed.

Grace: Proceed. Yeah.

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Lesedi: Grace has dealt with the chaos caused by the destructive nature of heavy rains and blocked drains for years. She says one time when she was 11, it almost took her friend’s life.

Grace: Okay. So with the day, it’s just like any other normal day where I would, uh, my friend would come and pick me up from, from my place, and then we proceed to school.

Lesedi: It started out as a sunny day in 2013 when Grace and her friend Diana headed out, but soon after the rains came. A heavy downpour.

Grace: When we reached by the stream, I found that there were a lot of water there and it was actually flooded and it was actually impassible.

Lesedi: Grace and her friend couldn’t turn back. They had to get to school for an important exam, but the makeshift pedestrian bridge was shaking from the force of the water. So instead of using the bridge, they took a calculated risk. They went down to the stream and tried to use the stepping stones.

Grace: We were actually holding hands, and I was about to step into the water as well.

Chanda: Yeah?

Grace: And then that’s when she slipped and she almost fell.

Lesedi: Grace says Diana could have drowned. And it’s this event that led her to become a climate activist.

Grace: As time went on, I started realizing to say, okay, this is an issue. This is what they mean by climate change. These are the impacts of climate change.

Lesedi: Today, Grace works for Agents of Change, a youth-led organization that trains young people to make radio shows about climate change. Their programs reach millions of people in Zambia, along with her radio work. She also does community outreach. But what Grace didn’t expect is the push-back she gets from listeners and people in the community when she speaks about climate change.

Grace: So we went into the community, started doing this survey. You ask people questions about climate change, and then this man was like, no, climate change is not real. Climate change comes as a result of God wanting to punish us. I tried to convince this man about climate change. He totally refused.

Ephraim Shatima: So we should not just blame God, but know that what we’ve done is to disturb the delicate nature of how God designed the planet, and that’s why we are experiencing this.

Lesedi: That’s Ephraim Shatima. He’s Africa’s top climate negotiator at the United Nations. He’s also the director of the Department of Green Economy and Climate Change for the Zambian government. Ephraim’s heard religious arguments against climate science before, he has a different take.

Ephraim Shatima: God created and gave us this earth. We are supposed to be stewards of it. We are supposed to take care of the earth, but it doesn’t seem we are doing a very good job at that and so it’s something that we need to pay a lot of attention to.

Lesedi: Our reporter, Chanda, talked to Ephraim about his work to solve the climate crisis.

Chanda: Okay. Like you’ve mentioned your entire professional life has been on climate change. Uh, why is this work, uh, related around climate change so important to you?

Ephraim Shatima: What we face in terms of impacts if we continue on this path, it is very possible that we could be wiped off the earth here because we are reaching the tipping points. The average increase in temperatures is threatening to escalate, we can control it, and with that, it’ll come with impacts that we simply can withstand.

Lesedi: In Mtendere, the problem of heavy rains is made worse by poor infrastructure that cannot cope with increasing rainfall. So ideally when a climate disaster happens, the loss and damage fund would kick in. Zambia, for instance, would be able to quickly access funding to help Grace and her community.

Ephraim Shatima: But how quickly resources flow to countries and implementation, that is another issue.

Lesedi: And there are more issues. Who will pay up? Who will get access? And to how much? Some estimates show developing nations could need around 600 billion US dollars per year by 2030. So that’s the other part of the equation that’s going to take time to figure out. The expectation is that rich nations will contribute towards this fund because they’ve been able to develop their economies while heavily polluting the earth. In the meantime, Grace and her family will continue to face flooding in Mtendere.

Grace: We’re actually here. So this is my place.

Lesedi: Grace lives in a three room house made of brick and plaster. She shares a room with her mom and niece. Her older brothers split the remaining rooms. Because of recent flood waters that entered their home, the family has had to spend time and money repairing the walls. Left untreated, the cracks could become worse when the rains return.

Chanda: So, uh, you said you are plastering the walls of your house. Is it because you’re plastering because when it rained and flooded, your walls got damaged?

Grace: Yeah. There’s a crack. Actually, let me show you one crack outside. Yeah. So the, there’s this crack here. We’re afraid the house may just uh, fall down. So, and it maybe people might get hurt, so we just have to start the plastering.

Chanda: Imagine right now it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s raining, it’s pouring. What would you be doing right now if it starts to rain?

Grace: Okay, so the first thing that I usually do, I need to make sure that everything is in the house. Yeah. So I get these buckets, the, those dishes I need to make….

Lesedi: Zambia’s disaster management department says in 2023, the country experienced its worst flooding in half a century. Tens of thousands of homes were flooded. Nearly 400,000 people were left homeless, eight were killed.

Ephraim Shatima: When lives are lost, you can’t adapt.

Lesedi: That’s Ephraim Shatima again.

Ephraim Shatima: You can’t resuscitate the lost livelihood, the entire compound houses are damaged and all that. There is no adaptation to that because it means the impacts are beyond what you can adapt to, and that’s where loss and damage comes in.

Chanda: What would be your message to Grace and those young people that are going to inherit these climate uh, problems?

Ephraim Shatima: Yeah. It would be resilient. Yes, to to be resilient. To, to be very determined, which is what we all need to have to respond to this challenge.

Chanda: Do you stay up all night waiting for the rains?

Grace: What we actually do, it’s, we put the doormats and then sometimes there’s even that blankets that we use. So okay, let’s at least to stop the waters from entering. And then from there we also have a dish. While we, you get the waters and then you rinse, and then you mop again. You rinse and mop and rinse. That’s what we do.

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This story was reported by Chanda Chabala and written by our senior producer, Dhashen Moodley for Radio Workshop. Thanks to our producers in Zambia, Kondwane Banda, and Gyft Mbembe. Jo Jackson is our managing producer, Rob Rosenthal and I edited this podcast. Music by ‘Qhamani Sambu at Edible Audio in Cape Town. Sound Engineering by Jo Jackson and Mike Rahfaldt.

This episode and the work of Radio Workshop would not be possible without the support of Bloomberg Philanthropies, the African Climate Foundation and the Climate Emergency Collaboration Group. For more information and to support our work, visit our website@radioworkshop.org. I’m Lesedi Mogoathle.