16 February 2014

Zimbabwe: Villagers Dice With Death As They Use Boats to Cross Chilonga Bridge

Villagers in the rural communities of Chilonga and the surrounding areas risk their lives on a daily basis as they cross the crocodile infested Runde River, through a low-lying bridge or on home-made boats to go to the nearest town of Chiredzi.

Many people have drowned or have been killed by crocodiles as they attempted to cross the 200-metre wide river to avoid travelling over 80km to the town which is otherwise just 20km away via the shortcut but dangerous bridge, which is always under water every rainy season.

The "killer" bridge links Chiredzi town with its vast rural communities of Chilonga, Chikombedzi and Malipati through to Sango Border Post.

It is the only short route to Chiredzi town for communal people in the area. Chiredzi town is where they get all their goods and services. The alternative route would be the long way via Damarakanaka, Mpapa and Triangle, a distance of at least 80km.

Each year, the bridge claims lives of people and animals during the rainy season as people resort to the use of home-made boats made from tree bark as the alternative. This has proved a dangerous means of transport to cross the river when the bridge is submerged and vehicles fail to pass through.

Once the river floods, it usually takes at least a week to subside enough for people to be able to use the bridge safely. The river is infested with crocodiles and many people have fallen prey to the reptiles while trying the walk across the bridge or when their home-made boats capsize, which is commonplace during this time of the year.

A rainy season hardly passes without loss of lives at the bridge.

What has made the bridge more dangerous is that the crocodiles now lurk around the vicinities of the bridge in anticipation of prey.

Last year four people drowned when a tractor which was towing a kombi was swept away by the floods while trying to cross the river. Efforts by the Civil Protection Unit (CPU), police sub-aqua unit and Hippo Valley Estates to rescue the people yielding nothing.

The search went on for three days and the badly damaged vehicles were only pulled out of the river after the water volume had subsided. Bodies of the four passengers who were in the kombi were never recovered despite a 10km search downstream.

After that disaster, the CPU ordered that the bridge should never be used during the rainy season and this was communicated to all stakeholders, including the police. However, at the onset of the current rainy season, The Standard discovered that the bridge is still being used.

Business at the bridge is brisk as usual with motorists from both ends of the bridge off-loading passengers every day at either side of the river. Those offloaded are then loaded into homemade boats to cross the river. Owners of the boats are making a killing, charging US$2 per head either way.

The charge however, depends on the level of water in the river. If the river is flooded, the charge is increased to US$5 to cross the 200-metre wide river. On our visit last week, there were nine boats stationed at the bridge manned by touts and a "station master".

The station master is responsible for controlling the queue of passengers and boats and also receives and records money from passengers in his book. The money is then shared at the end of the day. On a good day, especially on Mondays and Fridays, each member at the station pockets at least US$50 and the amount can be higher if the river is flooded.

The Chiredzi District CPU is blaming the police for the continued use of Chilonga Bridge which has claimed many lives since its construction.

Asked to comment on the issue, Chiredzi District CPU chairman Clara Muzenda, who doubles as the district administrator, said she was surprised that the bridge was still being used after communication was made to all stakeholders to stop using it.

She said her unit, in liaison with other stakeholders, agreed that the bridge should not be used during the rainy season. The route, she said, could only be used during the rainy season after a new bridge was constructed.

She said plans were in place to construct a new bridge across the river and that the district had tasked Chiredzi council to make feasibility studies on the new project. Muzenda also said they had forwarded the proposal for construction of the bridge to be considered in the national blue-print, the ZimAsset. Efforts to obtain comment from Chiredzi Rural District Council chief executive officer Isaac Matsilele failed as he repeatedly cancelled appointments with this reporter.

Muzenda said they had instructed the police to mount road blocks on both sides of the bridge to stop motorists from using the bridge. She said they also requested the police to arrest homemade boat owners found at the bridge and to confiscate their boats.

She said the Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure had been advised to erect road signs that show that the road was no longer in use, but none of these signs or roadblocks were in place when this paper visited the bridge last Sunday.

Masvingo provincial police spokesperson Peter Zhanero said he was not aware of the Chiredzi CPU directive and recommendations. "I am not aware of that resolution and I am not sure of what I can tell you about that issue. Give me time so that I check and I will come back to you" he said.

He had not done so at the time of going to print.

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