By Austine Charles Jere
While commemorating this year’s World Water Day in Mzuzu, President Peter Mutharika blamed rhetoric for limited access to clean water and improved sanitation. He needed to; he ought not to.
Twenty percent of Malawi’s landmass consists of water. Yet, domestic access to clean, potable and affordable water eludes majority of the country’s 16 million citizens. Few figures are illustrative. According to desk study, only two percent of the national population has yard-piped water; 75 percent of urban population, largely informal dwellers, uses kiosks; and 80 percent of the rural mass relies on boreholes, shallow wells and streams.
The nominal access to clean water chronically impacts development sectors, including health and economy, among others. For instance, deficient access to quality water is inimical to improved sanitation. Presently, only 30 percent of Malawians have improved sanitation. This sanitation dearth perpetuates an endless cycle of infections as 50 percent of all illnesses in Malawi are related to waterborne diseases.
And then, the economic cost is even worse. Unsafe water and poor sanitation smoulders productivity and increases deprivation. A 2012 Water and Sanitation Programme study indicates that, annually, Malawi loses K8.8 billion due to unsafe water and poor sanitation.
Thus, bridging the water accessibility gap is akin to breaking the poverty cycle and creating sustainable development. In fact, the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that every $1 (about K425 at present exchange rates) invested in clean water supply yields $4-$12 for the local economy. It is a consequential process. Increasing household water connections shortens the time and distance to the nearest water sources. The extra minutes can be utilised productively. Adults can engage in meaningful development activities while children will have less chances of missing classes or dropping out of school altogether.
For this to happen there is need for responsive policies, reformative legal structures and strategic implementation modalities. Already, we have impressive policies. The Waterworks Act (1995) not only establishes water boards, but also lays the framework for improved potable water supply. The Malawi Growth and Development Strategy (MGDS) II, an overarching mid-term national strategy, contains a whole sub-theme on water development. The Water Resources Policy (2005) preaches equitable, affordable and sustainable provision of water supply. The National Sanitation Policy (2008) comes handy in laying procedures for improved sanitation delivery and enhanced health. And then, there is the Public Private Partnerships (PPP) framework to cover for inefficiencies of parastatals.
However, as Mutharika lamented, it is the implementation that leaves a lot to be desired. It is a laissez faire approach which lacks pro-activeness and blatant non-compliance to regulatory tools.
Lack of pro-active planning is responsible for growth of informal settlements in cities which even councils disown. The compactness in these settlements makes it hard for service providers such as water boards to erect their infrastructure and bring water closer to people. As a result, household water connections are a thin luxury. Kiosks, the major water source therein, are sparsely populated due to factors such as small land spaces.
Worsening the water accessibility woes is the fact that even kiosk water is not universally affordable. It might be cheaper than household yard-piped water, but this very fact is a major disservice to people’s willingness to having household connections and therefore, undermines the safe water rhetoric.
Speaking at the same function, Minister of Irrigation and Water Development brought a line that sounded like he works for the UN. He said our water and sanitation problems will be resolved using internationally set out goals. But hey Mr. Minister, this is 2015, a year the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) will be interred into planning archives. So, what happened to the target on halving the number of people without access to potable water?
Much as international goals are ambitious and abiding, they represent a one-size-fits-all approach to development that never works unless you are manufacturing condoms. We need a localised approach to drive our national agenda and bridge the water accessibility gap. And as the world prepares the post-2015 agenda, we need to strategically contextualise our interests, localise our implementation modalities and earnestly execute it.
Unless we flag ourselves out of the crowd, and travel our path with conviction, we will keep on having rhetoric with no action to support it.
**The author is a communications and research officer for Urban Research Institute (URI), Lilongwe.