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Dirty water only option for millions in rural Malawi

 INSP 03 December 2019

An acute shortage of safe drinking water and poor sanitation remains one of the biggest challenges to development for rural communities in Malawi. Some 80 per cent of the population live in rural areas and more than 3.5 million people consume water from contaminated rivers, lakes, wells and streams. “Our government is just watching.” (1129 Words) - By Henry Kijimwana Mhango

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INSP_Dirty water only option for millions in rural Malawi1

An acute shortage of safe drinking water and poor sanitation remains one of the biggest challenges to development for rural communities in Malawi. Photo: Henry Kijimwana Mhango

INSP_Dirty water only option for millions in rural Malawi2

Some 80 per cent of Malawi's population live in rural areas and more than 3.5 million people consume water from contaminated rivers, lakes, wells and streams, while the government is "just watching.”Photo: Henry Kijimwana Mhango


The situation experienced by a village called Mwandenga at Songwe on the border with Tanzania, highlights the magnitude of the problem in Malawi. Mwandenga is a remote and poverty stricken area where the majority of the people live on less than 1$ a day. Every morning women in the area cross the border into Tanzania with buckets on their heads to buy drinking water from their neighbours due to the acute shortage of safe drinking water in their own village.

"Our water is too salty and cannot be consumed," said Fyness Mwamatope adding, "Hence (the reason) we are buying drinking water from residents in Tanzania - because theirs is safe."

Since they do not have passports to enable them to pass through the border legally many villagers cross a crocodile manifested Songwe River which is the boundary between the two countries and in doing so they put their lives at great risk.

Mwaamatope said that one of her colleagues lost her life to a crocodile recently when she tried to cross the Songwe River.

She said: "As usual, we left our homes early in the morning for drawing water and when we reached Songwe {River} it was flooded. But we forced ourselves to cross it because our homes were completely out of water. As we were crossing it, a crocodile attacked her and attempts to rescue were in vain because we also feared we could be caught by other crocodiles," Mwaamatope said crying as she recalled the incident. "Despite witnessing my friend being eaten by the crocodile, I have no choice but to continue with the ordinary life because water is life and I have nowhere to go apart from there {Tanzania}."

Villagers walk for more than an hour to get water and they pay about 80 cents for a 20 litre bucket. Those who have more money hire bicycle taxis to fetch water but operators charge exorbitant fees.

Communities around Ngana in the far west of Songwe and Katili and Fulirwa in the south of Karonga, also depend on water from contaminated rivers, wells and streams for survival.

The Ngana residents drink from the Songwe River while those in Fulirwa drink from another crocodile infested river called Wovwe. These rivers are also used by wild animals and people use the water for washing clothes and watering crops.

"It is pathetic and more painful to see that some Malawians are still drinking together with wild animals in the contaminated rivers, and worse still, being caught by animals - yet our government is just watching," said Emily Mkamanga, a human rights campaigner. She added: "This is not the Malawi we wanted when we were fighting for independence in 1964 and democracy in 1994".

Mkamanga said a lack of political will from the government to improve infrastructure was a major factor contributing to the poor water supply in rural areas.

"It is pathetic to see that some Malawians are drinking together with wild animals in contaminated rivers - yet our government is just watching."

She also bemoaned the laziness of men who regard water issues as the remit of women and the time the daily chore takes.

"Even in places where there are boreholes, some women leave their homes as early as 4am local time {2GMT} and return to their homes around 10am {8GMT}. They have to queue  for so long due to the high demand of the commodity as each borehole serves many villages", she explained, adding that, "this is not fair and must be treated as a matter of concern."

Each borehole serves some 500 people but they frequently breakdown and once broken repairs can take a long time to because spare parts are expensive.

The implications for the population's health are enormous.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, officials at Ngana and Fulirwa health centres told INSP that cases of diarrhoea and bilharzia account for 60 per cent of patients visiting both facilities. The officials attributed most of these health problems to the use of dirty water.

The situation remains grave in poverty stricken areas where uneducated people consume water from contaminated sources without boiling or applying chemicals such as chlorine to kill germs: the chemicals are simply are too expensive.

It is against this background that the government is being urged to provide civic education to people on the dangers of consuming untreated water. Ministers are also being pressured to start distributing free water treating chemicals as a short term measure while the drilling of more boreholes takes place.

In response, the government claims the provision of safe water in rural areas is hampered by the frequent breakdown of water points due to reckless use by the population.

"(The) effects of climate change have also affected us as well," said Rich Mheya, Minister of Irrigation and Water Development. "Most boreholes are functioning during rainy season but dry up during dry season due to the massive deforestation of our forests."

The minister insisted the government was doing everything it could to improve the situation by drilling more boreholes.

"We are also encouraging the people to embark on forestation especially in areas where water dries up during summer to avoid the problem," he added.

But Mheya's comments provided no solace to people affected.

"You mean it {government} has realized today that we are drinking with animals? How do we trust them if they have never even visited us to say sorry for the problem or provide us chlorine for treating the water?" said a Fulirwa resident called Bright Zgambo.

In 2008, the governments of Malawi and Tanzania, with financial assistance from the African Water Facility {AWF} and New Partnership for African Development, embarked on implementing a water project called the Songwe River Water Development Programme. The two year multi-million project was aimed at improving the water supply for residents in both countries but four years down the line and little has work has taken place.

Emily Mkamanga said the delay is due to lack of political will and she urged the government to investigate what has happened to the project's funding. She claimed that the government officials are failing to pay attention to the problem because they stay in towns where access to safe water is not an issue.

Mkamanga says the poor water supply is greatly affecting development in the rural areas because people have no time to participate in the community's development.

"How do they participate in development when their children are sick due to diarrhoea or if they don't have water?" she said, urging government to make more efforts to ensure the problem is quickly addressed.

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