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Association of effort re-opens the taps of Malawi

 Street News Service 18 October 2019

A new network of community-run water associations have been set up successfully in Malawi, aimed at improving water supply and its distribution across the country, but also at wiping out corruption, as Lameck Masina reports. (1000 Words) - By Lameck Masina

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SNS_New plan brings clean water to Malawi’s slum dwellers2

 The benefits of community-run water associations. Photo: Lameck Masina

Finding water used to take hours in the northern Malawian township of Nkolokoti-Kachere, according to Gloria Matchowa. But today she and hundreds of others can access it whenever they want, thanks to a new nationwide initiative gaining huge plaudits, which takes responsibility for supply away from often political or religious control, and back into the hands of the community.

Gloria is one of many Water Kiosk Managers been appointed across Malawi to supervise and run what was for many communities the most important daily function - gathering water to drink, wash or cook.

Water kiosks - simple open-air structures with a network of water taps -  have been part of life in Malawi for years, with local people often simply too poor to have their own taps at home.

But the system was fracturing - not because of leaky pipes, but because of their management, or lack of it. Hundreds of the kinds of water kiosk now under Gloria's control were shutdown, after those responsible for them failed to pay their water bills to the local water company. It wasn't lack of money to blame, only that many were run poorly, and corruptly, say the people who depended on them.

Her local Blantye Water Board ran some, but most were managed by religious and party leaders. Many local leaders simply pocketed the money paid for water by customers and bills, with the water companies remaining unsettled, resulting in all-too-frequent disconnections, which could last for years.

Much of the problem was that many of those running the kiosks were from outside the vicinity, and as well as their questioning their morals, local people said they operated poor service, often not ever turning up to switch on the taps.

About 60 per cent of Malawi's urban population who live in unplanned areas have long been relying on water kiosks, as their only source of safe drinking water. With their demise, came severe water shortage problems forcing residents to collect water from unprotected sources like the wells and rivers. With that came a surge in water related illness.

In Gloria's area alone, non-payment of bills to the water authorities forced the water utility to disconnect all the 236 kiosks the Blantyre City Council since 2007. "The closure of water kiosks has brought us a lot of problems. For example we have been collecting water from dug wells and rivers in the process, risking our lives to waterborne diseases. Water taps are very uncommon here," says Annie Maulidi a resident of nearby Bangwe Township.

Maulidi adds another problem is that the women report late for work because they walk long distance early morning fetching water. "I'm lucky my boss is also a woman who knows about this water problem. I would have been fired along time ago should it was a male boss."

A recent study by the independent International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), sponsored by the Scottish government, shows more than half of urban Malawians do not have access to running water, a clear sign that the country is failing to meet the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) for water and sanitation in its urban areas, which calls to halve the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation by 2015.

But the new project, of which Gloria is one of hundreds of managers, is looking to change all that. The Water Users Association initiative is looking to reopen all the closed water kiosks in the informal settlements. It is being piloted in four settlements of Bangwe, Kachere, Chilomoni and Ndirande. Blantyre City Council, Blantyre Water Board itself, and an NGO Water for People are championing the effort, and the signs are good.

As a formally registered cooperative, with members of its board elected from the community, which it is hoped the Association will promote a sense of proper user ownership.
Technical advisor for the committee responsible Chimenya Lackson Grant says unlike in the past when the kiosks were managed by those individuals appointed by the ruling political party, the nonpartisan local Users Associations  are responsible for supervising community water access - including collecting money, maintaining the kiosks and liaising with the water utility over issues of payment and tariff increases.

Associations are also responsible to ensure that the outstanding bills are paid to the water utility body. "There is an agreement that has been entered with each every formed water users association that previous bills are paid concurrently with current bills," says Grant.
"Eventually we have see some decrease in arrears for instance in Nkolokoti -Kachere association managed to pay back their arrears in four months."

The scheme is taking time, however to reach every area affected, and on top of that, the actual water systems themselves are having to be looked at. Often water pressure remains low, or there is no water maybe three to four days a week. Because of that, people are still being forced to go wells and rivers to collect the water which is not clean.
Grant says the supply problems are to be expected.

"Blantyre Water Board capacity volume of intake from our water source was planned for 300,000 people in the 1970's but now we are 700,000 double as much," he says.
He adds to solve the pressure problem, the government has hired a contractor who is reviewing pumping systems with a view to upgrading the pipe networks. This work, he says, is being done with funding from the European Union and the European International Bank with the aim of ensuring that Malawi has an un-interrupted water supply by 2013.

Gloria Matchowa, for one, is in no doubt of the progress the Users Associations have made - and the water flowing freely from the re-opened taps, is all the proof she needs. "We are accessing it whenever we want. This was unlike in the past when we would spend many hours of the early morning to scout for water to drink, wash and cook.

"Water is no longer the problem here."


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