The warning bells started ringing as early as January. Water utility companies, Blantyre Water Board (BWB) and Lilongwe Water Board (LWB) would fail to meet the demand for water in their cities if there were no interventions to increase supply in the near future.
Former LWB chief executive officer Engineer Alfonso Chikuni last January cautioned that his organisation would struggle to continue supplying water to the city because there had not been any significant investment to increase water production to match the growing demand.
He said at the time: “The 2018 population for Lilongwe City is 1.2 million, according to National Statistical Office [NSO], and it is projected to grow to 3.8 million by 2045. The corresponding potable water demand for the city is estimated at 130 000 cubic metres a day against the installed production capacity of 125 000 cubic metres a day.
“However, nominal production has significantly reduced due to poor raw water quality in Lilongwe River while demand is expected to increase to 189 000 cubic metres a day in 2025 and 325 000 cubic metres a day in 2045.”
Chikuni expressed optimism that the Salima-Lilongwe Project would ease the city’s water supply constraints once completed.
Similarly, BWB chief executive officer Engineer Dan Chaweza said on the side lines of a World Water Day pre-event in Blantyre that the water utility company would have a 14 000 cubic metre shortfall even after the commissioning of the Likhubula Water Project.
The project is set to increase water supply in Blantyre City and surrounding areas using gravitation force to push water to Nguludi Pumping Station in Chiradzulu to areas such as the Malawi University of Science and Technology (Must) in Thyolo, Bangwe Township, part of Limbe central business district and Mapanga.
He said: “We are making progress. Currently, we are at about 95 percent completion so in the next two weeks or so, it will be done and we will be commissioning it. Through our estimates, we know that the demand for Blantyre is about 120 000 cubic metres per day. We will be having a shortfall of 14 000 cubic metres.”
However, the projects to increase water supply to the two major cities have been marred by a series of disruptions including; government’s failure to identify financiers, legal disputes between government and contractors, unpaid bills and floods.
Problems with the construction of the Salima-Lilongwe Project began as early as March when government and Khato Civils, the contractor identified to develop the project, failed to agree on terms of the loan agreement.
Former minister of Finance, Economic Planning and Development Goodall Gondwe terminated Capital Hill’s agreement with Trissag Espanola of South Africa, a financier identified by Khato Civils, over differences in terms of payments.
He said in an earlier interview: “Some terms in the contract were not appropriate. I cannot explain everything, but it [the deal] was supposed to be concessionary, with a grant element, which we discovered was not there.”
The termination of the contract further delayed the project as government struggled to find an alternative financier who would agree with its refinancing terms.
Meanwhile in Blantrye, BWB delayed the opening of the Likhubula Water Supply System Project, which was initially set to be operational by April 2019, after floods destroyed some of its pipes, including the main water pipe which had been recently installed at Losa in Mulanje.
According to BWB director of technical services Mavuto Chiipanthenga, work could not continue as the place became water-logged and inaccessible by any machinery.
He said at the time: “Basically, this project has faced two challenges, namely compensation and flooding, which led to the dislocation of a main pipe at a length of about 1.3 kilometres. As a result, the contractor had to wait until the rains had reduced and employed other means to fix the problem.”
The situation for BWB was further compounded by unpaid bills government owed the utility company. As of November 29, government Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) bills had risen from K21 billion in June to over K26 billion.
About six key MDAs are said to owe the boards for an accumulated period of four years and the figures keep on swelling because government is not honouring the pledges it made to pay the boards.
A Water Boards Management report singled out Malawi Defence Force as the biggest debtor with over K11 billion in unpaid bills, followed by Malawi Police Service with over K4 billion.
State Residencies has over K3 billion, Prisons over K1.7 billion, Health has over K1.1 billion and Education has K335 704 049.82.
BWB director of finance Paul Chiumia said the debts affect their operations, considering the utility company is selling its water at a loss, a development which he said undermines its capacity to supply water to the public.
The World Bank, in its June edition of the Malawi Economic Monitor, urged government to promote the autonomy of utility bodies in the country to prevent sectoral inefficiencies in the water and electricity sector from creating a hidden fiscal burden.
The World Bank has suggested that government should mandate prepaid services for all MDAs to minimise the accumulation of unpaid utility bills and provide incentives to service providers to reduce operational inefficiencies by linking public financing for capital expenditure to verifiable improvements in efficiency, among other things.
It further suggested that government should adopt a national electrification strategy that is in line with the National Energy Policy.
Incidentally, while government projects to empower its water boards to supply water to its publics delay over logistical, legal and weather-related phenomena, the population in Malawi’s cities keeps growing, triggering subsequent increases in demand for potable water.
If these challenges are not resolved soon, Lilongwe and Blantyre could be heading for an unprecedented water crisis in the near future.