Four out of 10 boreholes drilled in the country either partially work or do not function at all, exposing communities to unsafe water sources despite billions of kwacha in public funds spent on the infrastructure.
Technicians have attributed the problem of faulty or non-functional boreholes to political interference in project implementation and lack of maintenance.
Information sourced from the Department of Water indicates that the country has about 60 000 borehole whose average functionality rate in the 28 districts stands at 58.5 percent, meaning that about 41 percent are either partially functional or have hardly worked since they were drilled.
From interviews and reports seen, the technicians indicate that the high non-functionality rate for boreholes is also a case of government’s failure to invest in monitoring and maintenance of water points, including boreholes.
The Malawi Rural Water Supply Investment Plan (2014-2020) estimates that if government had rehabilitated just about 5 000 of malfunctioning boreholes, at least one million people would be served with safe water. This means that a significant population is denied safe water, thereby threatening Malawi’s strides to achieve Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Number Six as set
by the United Nations to ensure universal, equitable and affordable access to safe water by 2030.
Construction of a borehole costs between K2.8 million and K3.6 million and for government to construct 5 000 new boreholes, it may need over K15 billion.
Records show that Blantyre, Zomba, Balaka, Lilongwe and Salima have the highest functionality rate at over 70 percent while Mwanza, Chiradzulu, Machinga and Likoma have the lowest functionality rate hovering between five percent and 47 percent.
The lack of maintenance comes against the background of the introduction of a borehole fund in the 2017/18 financial year. Under the fund, each of the 193 constituencies receives K12 million, translating to about K2.3 billion every year for borehole purposes.
With funding from the Scottish Government, in 2020, Baseflow—a non-governmental organisation (NGO) in water sector in partnership with government and other like-minded NGOs— conducted a water mapping exercise which also showed that the high non-functionality resulted from poor construction and lack of maintenance.
Baseflow team leader Muthi Nhlema said while the expectation is that the borehole has a life-span of 15 years or more, a good number of those they came across during the water mapping exercise ‘died’ barely a year or two after being sunk.
He said: “One of the main reasons that lead to borehole sustainability failure is construction quality. Even if you have the best water committee and a capable district water officer, if the borehole was poorly constructed, it will fail.
“Boreholes are poorly sited because many drillers do not have experts [hydrologists and geo-physicists] to help identify sites. This costs money, but it is for a good purpose.”
Nhlema said that during the mapping they conducted water pumping tests for a number of boreholes which failed the test.
He said: “The reason we have boreholes that run dry during some seasons is because they did not do the pumping test. The reason we do the test is to see how the borehole performs against certain pumping action.
“A borehole should still have water after running a submersible pump on it for at least six hours. If the borehole gives you water and stabilises after six hours, that is a good borehole.”
The 2017/18 Performance . Report for Irrigation and Sanitation Sectors shares Nhlema’s observation and adds that drilling of boreholes, in some cases, is undertaken without the knowledge of the district water office; hence, making it difficult to enforce standards
In its 2019/20 Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (Wash) Budget Brief, the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) also urged government to refocus investment in Wash to ensure a balance between the creation of new water infrastructure and related operations as well as maintenance costs.
Reads the brief: “Field visits during a Wash public expenditure review [PER] conducted in 2019 revealed that there is little involvement of the district water development officer [DWDO] in the spending decisions.
“The limited involvement of the DWDO has the potential to undermine quality assurance and future water point functionality.”
Unicef also bemoans uneven distribution of water points, including boreholes, where some areas have more than they need.
The situation is linked to the fact that some areas have more NGOs in operation as well as government prioritising some areas with provision of more boreholes for political visibility.
Unicef also questions the borehole fund which is uniform for all constituencies regardless of needs.
Notes Unicef in its brief: “This constituency-based approach does not consider varying needs by districts. Notably, there are districts with lowest levels of access to water such as Dowa [65.9 percent] that are receiving the same allocation from the borehole fund as districts with better access.”
In an interview, Evance Mwathunga, a water expert at Chancellor College—a constituent college of the University of Malawi—and has extensively researched on water point functionality in Malawi, blamed it on district councils’ lack of capacity to monitor construction of boreholes.
He also said politicisation of the construction and allocation of boreholes was another contributing factor,
saying: “Someone would want it constructed near the chief’s house or an area where they have some interest; politicians do it so do NGOs.”
Random interviews with district water officers also revealed that political interference had compromised the quality of borehole construction and management.
The officers said politicians dictated construction without following guidelines.
Machinga district water officer Macpherson Kuseli, whose district has one of the lowest functionality rates, said apart from vandalism, the high non-functionality rate was a result of construction done without the involvement of their office.
He said: “Politicians are fond of doing that. They would either do construction without our knowledge or dictate what should happen.”
Likoma acting district c o m missioner Benford Mwakayuni blamed it on the topography of the island which makes it difficult for boreholes to survive.
Balaka District Council director of administration Darwin M’ngoli attributed their high functionality rate to monitoring and investment in maintenance.
On the other hand, water experts have questioned the community-based management of boreholes, saying it is not effective due to lack of capacity.
Malawi uses the community-based management approach where every water point has a committee tasked with managing and maintaining the boreholes. In a case of a fault, the committee engages area mechanics.
But Mwathunga said there is no proven connection between the presence of a water committee and functionality.
“In our studies, we have looked at over 200 water points committees and we realised that what matters most is having authoritative leadership within the committee or outside,” he said.
Nhlema also finds it troubling that the responsibility to repair boreholes, as technical as it is, is left in the hands of community mechanics who have scanty training.
Our visit to some of the communities within the Central Region also revealed how communities are struggling to repair malfunctioning boreholes.
In Laisi Village, Traditional Authority Mduwa in Mchinji, at one water point every household pays K2 000 per year for borehole maintenance, but lack of accountability has led to many refusing to pay the annual fee.
In some communities, the lack of accountability has led to resistance by people to pay the maintenance fee.