In August, my colleagues from WaterAid wrote about why it was important to have a standalone Ministry for Water to avert long-term consequences on Malawi’s water future and global commitments.
I fully support their article, but if you needed another justification for a standalone Ministry of Water despite calls for a leaner Cabinet, then here it is.
There is a three-minute video circulating on social media of Mulanje District water officer (DWO)effortlessly demolishing the concrete floor around a rural borehole using his bare hands. Yes, he does not use construction machines or tools, but bare hands. Clearly, the mix of cement and sand was sub-standard.
The video has drawn shock and outrage from the viewers, who rightly ask: How did this happen?
However, the video tells a story many will never get to hear and Mr President, you must hear it.
Sadly, Your Excellency, this is not a unique case. Rural communities receive such substandard water pumps with reverent gratitude from legislators and non-governmental organisations all the time.
The tragedy is that the nation has accepted this as ‘the way it is’, yet any other sector would impose penalties for gross abuse of public trust.
If a pharmaceutical company produced life-threatening drugs, it would be fined, sued or closed.
If a politician, such as you, made promises they did not keep, they would be ejected from office by the ballot as it happened on June 23.
But if a drilling company, non-governmental organisation (NGO) or legislator delivers substandard water points, usually without supervision by or knowledge of government, they get away with it!
Drillers keep getting business, NGOs keep getting funding and parliamentarians keep their seats. No one is held accountable, leaving rural communities they claim to assist helplessly trapped in a cycle of water poverty.
Usually, the community bears the costs of maintaining poorly installed water points.
So, why is the government not doing anything about this?
Mr President, this has been the status quo for years—even with your nascent Tonse Alliance administration.
As a nation, we have paid lip service to the fact that water is vital resource to other strategic sectors, including energy, health, education and agriculture.
Strangely, we have relegated such a foundational building block of human development to a department within the Ministry of Agriculture where it was overshadowed by more politically palatable promises of food security and its populist fertiliser subsidy programmes.
During your swearing-in, you painted a vivid picture of your boyhood days that you only had a taste of tap water when you got to secondary school.
Many Malawians are still living that way.
Despite discussing the importance of water in your speech, even you, Mr President, and your administration, have sustained this trend by:
1. Reversing the previous administration’s decision of establishing a stand-alone Ministry of Water Development and Irrigation; and,
2. Dissolving the board of National Water Resources Authority many had advocated for years to regulate the water sector.
Such political manoeuvrings, Mr President, have created a legacy of low prioritisation of water typified by a weak and under-resourced policy and regulatory environment.
As a result, despite having the full mandate, district water offices cannot ensure that substandard works as those in the video will never happen again due to budgetary and technical constraints.
We are only lucky that, despite the near insurmountable challenges he faces daily, the DWO in the video visited the borehole to do his job.
We are even more fortunate that he was fearless enough to expose the disgrace he found.
Otherwise, this would have become one of thousands of communities duped by supposedly well-meaning benefactors and we would have never known about it.