Katharine Vincent and Willem Colenbrander, Kulima Integrated Development Solutions
April 3, 2024

Urban areas have particular food systems – and urban residents have particular needs to be met from those food systems. The lack of land in cities means that, whilst it may be possible to have small gardens, much food is procured through local markets. Availability of food to consumers in markets is dependent on trading networks and transport links, which are both necessary to bring in produce from outside of the city. This makes urban food supply vulnerable to any perturbations in those supply chains and transport networks.

Urban food supply and trade patterns were disrupted in Zambia in January 2024 as a result of flash flooding.  The month saw a number of particularly heavy rainfall events.  In one 24-hour period mid-January 2024, 80mm of rain fell across parts of Lusaka, which is around a third of the average monthly total for January. With many urban areas in southern African cities having inadequate drainage, this rapidly led to inundation of property, including key trading spaces.

lusaka cholera blog
(Left) A market in Lusaka; (Right) A raised toilet along a flooded street

Lusaka’s Soweto Market is the largest in the country. It plays a key role in the food system by serving as a landing site for food from farms and traders. Food in this market is sold direct to consumers through retail, but also on a wholesale basis – meaning that the market is also critical for supplying surrounding (often smaller) markets with produce.

In January 2024, the Soweto Market was flooded as a direct result of heavy rainfall. This impeded the supply chains and sales of produce, and risked food security of many of the 2.5 million Lusaka residents who are directly and indirectly dependent on the market. 

However, the flooding was not the only source of disruption, nor the only factor influencing the urban food market at that time.  Secondary impacts arose from an outbreak of cholera that was related to the flooding. Poor sanitation in southern African cities means that cholera outbreaks are not uncommon, and the first cases occurred with the onset of the rains in October 2023. However the particularly heavy rainfall in January 2024 gave rise to alarming conditions in Lusaka.     

Lusaka is home to many informal settlements which have grown rapidly and put pressure on already-inadequate sanitation.  Although no longer advised, shallow wells are still used for drinking water in the absence of piped supply, and pit latrines are the most common form of sanitation.

Flash flooding leads to rapid contamination and creates ideal conditions for cholera outbreaks. The Cholera outbreak soon overwhelmed existing healthcare facilities in Lusaka and led to the 60,000 seater National Heroes Stadium being opened on 5 January 2024 to provide treatment. By the time the outbreak began to subside, there had been 20,000 infections and over 600 deaths.

The unsanitary conditions that led to cholera, created by heavy rainfall, had knock-on effects in the urban food system. For residents in flooded areas, the water led to contamination of urban gardens and crops.  Consumption of vegetables that had been inundated by cholera-contaminated water increases transmission of the disease. Since the flooding occurred in the middle of the growing season for maize, this was less at risk of being consumed. However, ripe fruit and vegetables that became contaminated and were eaten were a transmission risk of cholera to people.  

More concerningly, the cholera outbreak required the government to take decisive action in an attempt to reduce the spread. As well as delaying – twice – school opening, these measures included closing markets, such as the Soweto market, and banning street vending.

The closure of markets and trading points has significant implications for the urban food system and food security of the city’s residents. Producers of food, such as farmers, are affected as they no longer have access to markets, and risk fresh produce spoiling before being sold. Traders are affected by the inability to operate through the market space. And of course consumers bear the brunt – when there are no supplies to purchase.  

Although the direct impacts of the flooding and the resulting cholera outbreak have now largely subsided, and the Soweto Market has long since reopened, it showed the vulnerability of the urban food system to disruption.  Despite the flash flooding in January, in this El Nino year, the summer rainfall in Zambia has been very low, especially in the southern part, and the president recently declared a national disaster on account of drought. With impacts on production, and around half of the usual crop thought to have been destroyed (largely in rural areas), the urban food system will likely face another shock come harvest time.  

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