By Raphael Mweninguwe
When Eneles Ndaipa bore her first born child 15 years ago she was asked to bring a bucket of water at the hospital in advance because at the time Chikwewo Health Centre had almost no running water.
“When I was due for delivery my mother and I left our home and my mother had a bucket of water which we used to draw from a nearby water well,” she says.
At the time she delivered her second born child, says the hospital was installed with water tanks. The tanks were installed to harvest rain water. Unfortunately not much rain water have been harvested due to shortage of rainfall and again after the rains the water was being used without refilling the tanks.
“Because of this problem again we still had to being in water buckets,” she says.
The situation, however, was different this time around when she was delivering her third born child. The Health Centre had some water tanks installed with help from WaterAid in Malawi with financial help from the Scottish government.
Water is pumped from a well and pumped into tanks where it is treated before use by health workers and patients.
“It is fine now. We have running water and the taps are not drying at all,” she says.
WaterAid is implementing the “Delivery Life” project in partnership with government and the AMREF Africa and the communities as well.
To be admitted at this health centre is no longer a night mare for women and health workers. Water crisis here is no longer an issue, at least for now
Deliver life project is being implemented in Machinga and Zomba by WaterAid. But they are not the only districts.
Machinga and Zomba are some of the districts which had a number of perennial streams and rivers providing water to communities about two decades or so.
These rivers have dried up. Rainfall, like many parts of the country, hardly falls for long time. Degradation of water catchment areas is the order of the land. Wanton cutting down trees for charcoal, firewood and agricultural expansion is happening at speed.
Regina Samson from Community Based Child Care Centre (CBCC) in Traditional Authority Chikowi in Zomba says the district is facing serious water problems because most of the boreholes and rivers are dry.
She says CBCC had had no running water for some time and water was collected from distant places until WaterAid came to the rescue.
Local chiefs in both Machinga and Zomba agree that the two districts are facing serious water shortages. They apportion the blame to climate change because most of water sources have dried up and the water table is low.
Communities shot themselves in the foot
Malawi is a country which has one of the highest deforestation rate in Southern Africa with government official statistics indicating that the rate of deforestation is at 2.8% per year.
Zomba and Machinga are not spared from this deforestation. The genesis of water crisis is man-made. Communities in Zomba and Machinga districts and many other places in the country should understand that they are shooting themselves in the food though land degradation and deforestation.
“One of the reasons of water shortages in our communities is that our rivers and streams have dried up. Even some of the boreholes do not function,” says Janet Shaibu, Chair of Chindamba Borehole Committee.
Shaibu explains that in Machinga charcoal production has increased in recent years saying “when you go to the markets especially in towns you will see a lot charcoal being sold.”
Global Forest Watch indicates that Machinga has since 2001 to 2020 lost 4,460 ha out of 32,505 ha of forest cover representing a percentage loss of 13.7%. While Zomba has lost, during the same period of time, 3,303 ha out of the 15,548 ha of forest cover representing a percentage loss of 21.2%.
These statistics are not mere coincidences that Machinga and Zomba should go through such a water crisis period. It is a cause of worry not only to policy makers but to the communities as well especially women who spend much of their time in search of this precious natural resource.
Climate change which is being blamed on human induced activities such as land degradation, forest fires, coal production among others is also having serious consequences on the communities. Coupled with deforestation climate change is impacting on communities causing insufficient firewood, reduced rainfall, lower river levels, fewer water catchment areas and shortage of water for irrigation farming.
In all these women and girls are bearing the blunt as they need more time to collect water for household use such as cleaning and preparing foods.
WaterAid: A panacea?
Unlike politicians, WaterAid In Malawi Country Director, Mercy Masoo, does not want to pat herself and her organization on the back for bringing in a sigh of relief to the rural communities of Zomba and Machinga through the provision of portable water, but the local chiefs and their subjects look at her as a panacea.
“If it were not for WaterAid and its partner AMREF Africa, we still wouldn’t have this clean water,” Says Hajira Mtuluko, a 36-year old mother of four children from Machinga.
Mtuluko explains that women were walking long distances and were leaving there homes as early as 3am in search of water.
“But today the situation is different. We have water available,” she says.
But Masoo warns that the country is sliding backward and she fears that Malawi may not meet the UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6. The SDG 6 calls for the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all by 2030.
“All that we have gained in terms of access to clean water, good sanitation and hygiene over the years is being eroded. We were almost 88% in terms of access to water but now were are down to about 60%. This is not a good development and we need to do more,” she says,
She says this is not the time for Malawians to be suffering from diarrhea or cholera which is in reference to the current outbreak of cholera in the country.
“Most of our health facilities are running without water. This is the reason why WaterAid is partnering with government and others to help improve the situation. Government alone cannot do everything,” she says.
WaterAid indicates that 24% of health facilities are without water and it says it is striving to provide 75 water facilities by 2024 in the country’s health centres.
The National Statistical Office (NSO) Population and Housing Survey of 2018 clearly shows that 8.0% of the country’s 18.7 million people rely on unprotected wells and 5% rely on rivers and streams.
NSO says 61.7% of the population depends on boreholes for water access. But statistics also show that 70% of the water points in Malawi function just within two years of water installation. The water points either they break down within the period or water table gets even low and water cannot be pumped.
In terms of sanitation and hygiene official statistics show that 47.9% of the rural population have pit latrines and 31.6% in urban areas have pit latrines. And 8.2% use the bush or openly defecate. Those that are using flush toilets across the country are pegged at 30% with 14.8% in the urban areas use flush toilets and 0.6% in the rural areas use flush toilets.
These statistics are a clear indication that this country needs a lot of investment in WASH if the SDG 6 is to be met by 2030. Financing by government to the WASH sector is not enough.
More need to be done to improve on WASH. But at the same time not everything can be done by government. For example, building a pit latrine with hand-washing facility does not require government to do it. It is a question of mindset change.
Machinga and Zomba are some of the districts that have high birth rates with high population growth. NSO 2018 Population and Household Survey shows that Machinga has the highest intercensal growth rate of 3.9% followed by Mangochi at 3.6%. Zomba has 2.5% higher than Thyolo which is the lowest at 2.0%.
Memory Bwanali, Machinga District Hospital’s Nursing and Midwifery Officer, says over 1000 babies are born each month at the hospital, a number which also puts much pressure on the water resources not only at the hospital but also in the villages.
Machinga has also one of the highest child marriage rates in Malawi. Margret Liwonde a 20-year old mother of three children had her first pregnancy at the age of 14 and at 15 she was a mother of one.
A rapid increase in population is taking a toll on water resources at both qualitative and quantitative levels.
Machinga and Zomba have some natural forest cover remaining but with the population on the rise the remaining forests are being degraded due to agriculture expansion, charcoal and firewood production and bush fires leading to low levels of water supply and drying rivers and degraded water catchment areas.
Despite all the water crisis, communities are stilling putting their hope and faith in WaterAid, government and other partners for water provision and not necessarily on themselves.