In what is a cover-up for government’s failure to finance public health institutions, the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development has directed water boards not to disconnect water from public hospitals for non-payment of bills unless the minister approves the action.
The directive comes against the background of reduced funding to the health sector that has seen some district hospitals getting half their monthly allocations, a situation that has seen some facilities suspending provision of food to patients and ambulance services, among others.
In an internal communication from a chief executive officer (CEO) to zone managers at one of the country’s three regional water boards which The Nation has seen, staff have been advised that no disconnection of any hospital should be done without the knowledge of the minister responsible.
Reads in part the communication: “Colleagues, we are under instructions from Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development not to disconnect any hospital unless the minister has approved the disconnection himself.
“There have been cases, we were told, that some disconnection of hospital resulted in instant deaths of some patients and the water board which took that action was blamed for those deaths.
“The honourable minister has, therefore, directed that [there be] no disconnection of any hospital without his knowledge.
“So let us explore all avenues and if it reaches a point that all efforts have failed then my office has to be notified and then I can seek clearance from the minister’s office. Then that is the point we can disconnect.”
But in an interview on Monday, Minister of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development Allan Chiyembekeza expressed ignorance about the directive to water boards.
He said: “I don’t know who sent the directive. I don’t know anything about it. So, it is really difficult for me to say anything about it. It might have come from this ministry, but certainly not from this minister.”
However, one senior officer at a regional water board corroborated the correspondence The Nation has seen, saying the board has been told not to disconnect hospitals in its supply area because of the social services the institutions provide.
The officer said the boards are expected to negotiate payment terms with the hospitals before disconnecting.
Said the officer: “Before we go to hospitals to disconnect, we have to exhaust all the negotiating channels and when it reaches the point where all avenues have been exhausted, we should probably seek direction from the ministry on how to possibly proceed before going on the ground to disconnect. The idea is rather than using the disconnection channel, we should use the negotiation channel.”
Malawi has five water boards, namely Blantyre Water Board (BWB), Southern Region Water Board (SRWB), Lilongwe Water Board (LWB), Central Region Water Board (CRWB) and Northern Region Water Board (NRWB).
In recent times, a number of public hospitals have had their water supply disconnected over outstanding bills. The affected hospitals include Zomba Central Hospital (ZCH), Dedza District Hospital and Kasungu District Hospital.
In the case of ZCH, services in the labour ward and the theatre came to a standstill after the SRWB disconnected supply over a K6 million unpaid bill.
Dedza District Hospital, on the other hand, owed CRWB K3.2 million, according to a report on Zodiak Broadcasting Station (ZBS).
Most services such as operations, newborn deliveries, wounds dressing and cooking in hospitals require water availability and any crisis has the possibility of putting lives at risk.
To emphasise the importance of water in hospitals, at one point, well-wishers hired a water bowser to supply Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital (QECH) after a water crisis hit the referral facility when an internal pipe burst twice.
But while the directive—a cover up for government’s failure to fund the health institutions and other public bodies—looks caring on paper, the implications on the operational efficiency of the utilities, which are already failing to steadily supply water to residents in their catchment areas, could be dire as operational capital gets stuck in unpaid bills.
As of last year, figures showed that government institutions owed the water boards at least K1.5 billion.
Thus, this directive could only succeed in further weighing down the boards which, to survive, may pass on the burden to individual water consumers already panting under the weight of economic hardships and a drip-drop water supply.
The move also runs counter to the parastatal reforms that, among other things and as approved by President Peter Mutharika, promises independence of the statutory corporations. With this directive, government may just have flushed that commercial independence down the toilet.
During public sector reforms consultations, a clear narrative emerged that many parastatals perform poorly because of political and government interference in their management. n