In the vastness of Blantyre City’s peri-urban areas, it is clear that lack of access to water supply facilities is no longer an issue. Kiosks—some with single tap and others many—are everywhere—cementing the global goal of having water sources within every 500 metres.
The dream is big. The newly-elected president of the Water Users Association (WUA), Shadreck Chabwera, says the dream is to plant kiosks at every 100-metre space.
Water for People and Blantyre Water Board (BWB) introduced WUAs to plant kiosks to support populations in low income areas to access potable water while reducing the distance they walk to access the resource.
According to the former WUA president, McJones Nsomba, 800 kiosks have been planted since 2008 and 1 000 people employed. There are 10 WUA bodies which manage over 50 kiosks each, depending on the size of the catchment area.
While this is worth celebrating, the initiative is losing its meaning and relevancy as the initiative is marred by poor management and erratic water supplies.
Zione Joseph, a resident of Chigumula Township, reveals drinking from unprotected wells when there is a kiosk just outside her house.
She even regrets donating part of her land for the construction of a kiosk, which she says is yet to release a water drop two years since its construction. She recalls the joy that came with news that Namiyango-Chigumula WUA was to plant a kiosk at her home.
“I saw the hardship of walking a long distance at night to draw water coming to an end and my children not missing classes to fetch water,” she recalls.
However, this was a far-fetched dream. The kiosk at her home remains dry. Reading through her eyes while sharing the ordeal during an interface meeting between service providers and consumers arranged by Consumer Association of Malawi (Cama) at Chigumula CCAP recently, it was evident that she lives in misery.
“This is a failed initiative. I wish BWB officials were here to tell us why the taps are always dry,” said another citizen, Mary Sekeni, cutting Joseph short.
This triggered a can of ugly reactions from the over 50 participants, with others calling for the suspension of the meeting until BWB officials were in attendance to clear themselves from the mess.
However, this was not the first meeting for such an incident to happen. Another one in Pasani WUA in Lunzu ended in tempers with customers pressuring service providers to give them clear answers on the shortfalls. This has been the tradition at the eight meetings The Nation has attended between 2015 and 2016.
Among the serious concerns that headline the meetings include dry kiosks, late connections, pipes bursting due to pressure, delay in repairing broken pipes and increased illegal water dealers, who sell water meant for household use at cheap cost. At WUA level, the meetings revealed that water sellers spend few hours at kiosks and others over-charge customers.
Nsomba, who resigned weeks before the expiry of his term, commends the initiative for planting more kiosks, but says the shortfalls outweigh the achievements.
“It is hard to differentiate the years before 2008 and 2016 because people are still drinking from unsafe water sources. The kiosks are mostly dry and there are several problems coming from both inside and out,” said Nsomba at the end of Chigumula meeting.
He is not happy to leave the office at a time only 50 percent of the kiosks are working efficiently and effectively.
“I have reports from each WUA and they are not attractive. I have been to BWB to share with them concerns from these meetings, but surprisingly, we are talking different languages. Imagine they don’t know some kiosks have never received water,” says Nsomba.
BWB spokesperson Priscilla Mateyu says isolated cases where water is not available cannot be the basis to declare that many kiosks are dry.
“In fact this is the time when all WUAs have seen water supply in kiosks than ever before. Areas where there were serious water problems such as Bangwe are now registering better sales. If there are problems in some areas then it is just a fault, “she says.
However, on the contrary, the 2016 water service metric report for Blantyre by one of the service providers, Water for People, shows that 95 percent of the target population has access to water sources, but only 44 percent of the resource is accessible.
Cama project officer Maurice Nkawihe says management of kiosks leaves a lot to be desired. He says, slowly, the initiative is losing its meaning because people are now buying expensive water from private homes when they have kiosks, which are intended to supply cheap potable water.
Nkawihe, however, heaps the blame on both BWB and WUA management, saying the meetings have revealed that the problems customers are facing are coming from these two ends.
“The meetings give consumers and service providers an opportunity to interact and solve problems they face. Sadly, our friends at BWB hardly attend. If water meant for household use is sold to people, who is to blame? How come a kiosk is not supplied with water when a nearby household has sustainable running water? These are the questions we are getting at these meetings,” says Nkawihe.
By design, water meant for household use is sold at a lower cost than that for commercial purposes and it is illegal to sell such water.
Nsomba says this is killing the WUA idea. He adds that if the status quo remains as it is, the WUA initative will collapse soon.
Nonetheless, through WUAs, Water for People visualises water for all in Blantyre’s peri-urban by 2020.
In an earlier interview, Water for People training and capacity building specialist Joseph Magoya admitted the increasing irregularities in management of WUAs and water supply, but said they are working as a team to solve the problems to ensure the objective of the initiative is met before the target time.