In Siliya Village in Ntcheu, potable water is a scarce commodity few families can afford. They walk almost 15 kilometres to draw drinking water from a murky river because they cannot afford a bucketful which costs K50 at a borehole almost 10 km away.
Every day, women and children have to wake up around midnight to fetch water. They make the long trips to Mwenda Village about three times a day, carrying 20-litre buckets on their heads.
Since Mpira Dam in the district dried up in July, the search for safe water has been torturous for 115 household in the rural part of Traditional Authority (T/A) Makwangwala. Many people draw drinking water from the drying Namikundi River, almost 10km away.
“Everyday students report to school late and some of them have dropped out because of the water shortage. Students, who commute to Nachitheme Secondary School, wake up at 12am to fetch water at the river. People queue for water as early as 11 am,” says village head Siliya.
The desperate community has become innovative and confrontational to get adequate water. Lucky are those who own these bicycles. In the area, the bikes are seen carrying three or more jerry cans at a go. This eases the burden of carrying water home.
Women bear the brunt of the water crisis, which has taught the rural Malawians to use every drop sparingly. Families in the area now reuse water while others skip baths to save the scarce commodity.
“Families have come up with timetables showing who is supposed to take a bath on a particular day. Men usually give way to women because they cannot take the whole day without bathing,” says John Chigawo.
Families survive on less than 40 litres a day.
In the community where fetching water is considered a chore for women and girls, caring husbands now escort wives to the river—leaving children unattended.
Together, they wait for four to six hours as the river dries up every so often. Fistfights and wars of words erupt as those who cannot afford bucketfuls on sale in the next village scramble for water in the drying stream where wild animals and livestock drink. Some return home empty-handed.
Siliya feels his area is left behind. He envies group village head Nsiyaludzu whose territory has potable water, a health centre and schools.
“My people are struggling,” he laments. “They travel about 25 kilometers to Nsiyaludzu Health Centre only to get painkillers or antibiotics. Women give birth on the way to the health centre, which is risky.”
The rural Malawians want government to establish water points and a health centre in the area.
“I wake up early every morning to draw water at the river while my husband goes to the farm. The challenge is that some men think that we use the water crisis to cheat on them. We feel the same way when they come late from the river,” says Modesta Kamkwamba.
Siliya residents feel mistreated, cheated and forgotten.
“During the 2014 campaign period, shadow members of Parliament promise us they will give us water. Once voted into power, they abandon us for five years. Now, they are coming again to beg for votes. Some of us feel like not voting for any member of Parliament,” said Kuseli Chilambe.
The water shortage makes the community vulnerable to a cholera outbreak and other winterbourne diseases.
Ntcheu district water officer Onances Nyirenda said he is unaware of the problem in the area.
“It’s unfortunate that people are drinking from unprotected sources. Our primary goal is to ensure that people drink water from protected sources. The issue of distance to a water point comes second after quality water,” he said.
T/A Makwangwala said it is sad that the “neglected community” is still facing water problems.
“I am surprised with this issue. United Purpose has been in my area drilling boreholes in some villages. We didn’t know that some area lacks potable water, “he said.
As the water stress bites hard, health workers at Nsiyaludzu Health Centre ask pregnant women to bring water to the clinic.
Government estimates that 2.5 million rural Malawians have no access to potable water. The water stress, especially the drying of Mpira Dam four months ago, has also left taps dry in Balaka District.