Only a fool is thirsty in the abundance of water, sings Bob Marley. Northern Region Water Board (NRWB) seems determined to save Malawians from needless time-honoured water problems. JAMES CHAVULA writes.
Lunyangwa Dam that offers safe water for much of Mzuzu City is dipping so low that many residents will soon have to do with dry taps, after being hit by erratic rainfall.
Grappling with on-off water supply in Mchengautuwa Township, Enala Ngwenya already wakes up around 4am to fill up her buckets as water pressure dwindles after sunrise.
To her, the worst tragedy lies ahead.
“We don’t know what will happen when the dry season begins,” she says. “The rain pattern has been the worst in recent years.”
The situation is worrisome, says Northern Region Water Board (NRWB) spokesperson Edward Nyirenda.
“The city is not getting enough rain to fill the dam. It will continue facing water problems if the rains stop,” he says.
As effects of climate change deepen, some consumers wonder how long they will keep having dry taps while Lake Malawi empties into the Indian Ocean.
Failure to utilise the continent’s third-largest fresh-water lake on World Water Day compelled President Peter Mutharika to speak out.
“We need to reflect how we use the blessings that we have. How do we explain that a third of the country is covered with water and yet our people are thirsting?” a puzzled Mutharika asked.
What is wrong with us?
Almost 10 in 100 Malawians have no access to safe water, the World Health Organisation (WHO) reports.
The majority of the reached 90 seldom have water all day every day.
Interestingly, NRWB chief executive officer Titus Mtegha offers a glimpse of an ambitious project to start tapping water from the lake by 2025.
“Our goal is water for all by 2025,and research show it is possible,” Mtegha says.
The recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) prescribe water for all by 2030.
It seems the shunning of the lake said to be an expensive option is waning.
Mtegha announced the long-awaited paradigm shift: “We’ll continue protecting our water sources while exploring the potential of the lake where we have a lot of water to supply our areas.”
NRWB seems determined to complete feasibility studies and funding negotiations in four years.
“Our view is to have the new system in place by 2025. By 2020, we want to have plans that we can start implementing right away,” he says.
The board envisages using solar power to overcome the exorbitant electricity costs of lifting water from the rift valley lake to the city.
He explained: “It is possible to tap the water from the lake, but the main challenge is height. The lake is low-lying and Mzuzu is a highland. To lift the water, we need a lot of power.”
Despite the ifs and buts that overshadow talks of Lake Malawi as a sustainable source for tap water, the news from Kawiluwilu constitutes a breakaway that confirms it is neither affordable nor impossible to use the lake as NRWB does at its $10 million Garnet Halliday Water Plant in Karonga.
“Electricity is a major setback, but we will find a way. We are already in touch with our partners to use solar to pump water from the lake,” Mtegha says.
Where there is a will, there is a way.
Bentley Namasasu, chairperson of the Commissions and Statutory Corporations Committee of Parliament, urges government to plot a master plan spelling out how to utilise the lake for irrigation, power generation, water supply and other uses.
To the legislator, the costs will keep skyrocketing
“The price will be higher when the situation demands us to do the things we keep postponing. We need a strategy on how water boards and other players should use the lake to improve livelihoods,” Namasasu said by the roadside at Machecheta, Mzimba where a water plant is in the frame for a K16 billion upgrade.
From hilly terrain, swathes of settlements with hundreds of houses mushrooming without tap water in sight can be seen. Hilly parts of Mzimba often experience low pressure, the locals say.
Namasasu finds it “unfair and ironic” that an entire township has to do without safe water when the country has an abundance of water.
Reaching the unreached population entails going beyond cities and towns.
“Rural areas need safe water too,” Minister of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development Allan Chiyembekeza told NRWB officials when he inspected a $13 million (about K9 billion) water plant under construction in Chitipa.
A bird’s view of the North shows the majority of unreached areas are in remote areas where 85 in 100 Malawians live. NRWB pipe system comprises nearly 40 000 connections serving almost 280 000 in trading centres near Chintheche, Nkhata Bay, Mzimba Boma, Rumphi, Chilumba, Karonga and Songwe water schemes.
The ‘islands with tap water’ tell a tale of exclusion.
NRWB reportedly wants to connect the dots so that communities along the pipeline get tap water. The interconnection will bundle Songwe with Chilumba in Karonga, Rumphi with Mzuzu and Mzuzu with Chintheche, says Mtegha.
Besides, the statutory board is negotiating a $20 million deal with the European Bank to install boreholes to keep Mzuzu system running when water from Lunyangwa becomes unobtainable.
The pumping of groundwater is an interim measure as the company seeks about $100 million for construction of a dam at Lambilambi near the Elephant Rock in the Viphya Plantation.
However, the Lake Malawi project is the way to go for Malawians who ask: What is wrong with us that we experience massive water problems when the country keeps exporting water at no fee? n