Jennifer Child, 18, knows how long walks to drawing water points, slow-down the race to ensure every child learns.
The Form Two girl at Msalura Community Day Secondary School in Salima used to wake up by 5 am to help her widowed mother fetch water for their household.
“As a first-born of three children, I was required to escort my mother to a communal water point before going to school,” she says.
Jennifer often got to class late and “too tired to concentrate on lessons”, she says.
She narrates: “There was no time to study in the morning. After sweeping around the home, I had to rush to the water point which frequently ran dry.
“When I got to class, I used to spend the first lessons dozing off instead of following the lessons.”
The exhaustion endangered her dream of becoming a soldier or a nurse, she states.
However, the girl now has a regular water supply close to home—and she dares to dream big.
“I have been freed from the long walks worsened by intermittent water supply at an overcrowded communal water point. Usually, mom and I could wake up early to beat the queue but still spent hours in the line. It was painful. The taps used to dry up before we got a drop,” she explains.
The improved water supply emanates from the Malawi Drought Recovery and Resilience Project (MDRRP) funded by the World Bank following severe drought in 24 of the country’s 28 districts in the 2015/16 rainy season. The government, through the Ministry of Forestry and Natural Resources, has been implementing the project to restore economic and social livelihoods eroded by drought.
The project, now renamed the Malawi Resilience and Disaster Risk Management, included the drilling of eight high-yielding boreholes in Balaka, Mwanza, Mulanje (Muloza), Chikwawa (Nchalo) and Neno districts, supplied by the Southern Region Water Board (SRWB).
Six others are located in Ntcheu, Ntchisi, Salima and Dedza districts under the Central Region Water Board (CRWB).
Jennifer says the investment in resilient water infrastructure has made her morning tasks easier. Now she finds time to study.
She explains: “Since we started getting reliable water supply from the solar-powered project last year, I am able to wake up early to study and complete my homework.
“I spend much less time fetching water, washing kitchen utensils and cleaning the house. When my class has a morning shift, I get to school on time and fresh.”
The Covid-19 rules to decongest classrooms have given rise to three shifts at her school.
“When I am not on 7.30am shift, I do routine chores and I spend an hour studying before departing for school at 11 am. I get to class early and eager to learn, not to sleep,” she says.
Her school, formerly Salima Secondary School, has steady water supply for learners and teachers.
With regular water access at home and in school, adolescent girls like Jennifer no longer miss class or worry about personal hygiene when menstruating.
“As an adolescent, I need constant water supply to maintain my personal hygiene. When the water supply is erratic, a girl will stay home or skip classes because menstrual hygiene is impossible in such a setting. She doesn’t want to be scorned as unclean,” she laments.
Deputy headteacher Hudwick Nanson says reliable access to water from the solar-powered boreholes has created a safe teaching and learning environment.
Safe water has become handy for the school’s 30 teachers and 652 learners who frequently wash hands with soap to prevent Covid-19 transmission.
“Thanks to MDRRP, we all wash hands repeatedly, clean our learning space and drink safe water from taps that rarely run dry,” he says.
Msalura inherited boarding facilities with flush toilets when Salima Secondary School shifted to higher ground at Kaphatenga in 1993.
Nanson recalls: “At first, we were experiencing significant water supply problems. When electricity flickered off, the water supply would stop two minutes later. There were days when this was happening twice or thrice a day, leaving teachers and learners without water.
“Nowadays, we have regular water supply regardless of power outages.”
The solar-powered borehole has improved water supply in Salima from eight hours a day to 20, says Salima-Nkhotakota CRWB Zone Manager Phillip Kaingo.
“The population in our zone is rising rapidly, so our water supply is competing with the rising demand of the fast-growing population. Previously, our customers were getting inadequate water supply, but the investment in new water source [solar-powered borehole] has improved water supply. We no longer worry about water hiccups even when we experience blackouts and drought,” says the engineer.
The high-yielding borehole, which produces 12 litres per second, strengthens supplied communities’ resilience to future droughts allow water users to continue with their socio- economic activities without disruptions.
Kaingo is happy that the solar-powered borehole has liberated women and girls from waking up at 5 am to fetch water.
“Instead, they put the time to productive use, including doing business or schoolwork. So the girl child, who faces the burden of fetching water before going to school, is also benefitting,” he explains.
The system benefits almost 41 724 people, up from 29 954 before rehabilitation.
And Jennifer is one of the major winners. With constant supply within reach, the schoolgirl sounds determined to put a smile on her widowed mother’s face. “I am motivated by the clean uniforms nurses and soldiers wear as well as the desire to help my mother overcome poverty,” she says. “Mom raises three children single-handedly and has sacrificed a lot for me to remain in school. She has no employable child to support her. I want to hold her hand and lift her out of poverty.”
Water suppliers turn to familiar foe
Drought-prone districts in Malawi are turning to a familiar foe for improved water supply.
For them, sunlight has become a boon as utilities are searching underground for a sustainable solution to water scarcity.
Water users in Salima, Ntcheu, Ntchisi and Dedza districts are reaping the benefits of abundant sunshine, thanks to solar-powered boreholes funded by the World Bank under the Malawi Drought Recovery and Resistant Project (MDRRP).
“Until last year, taps used to dry for over 12 hours nearly every day. It was worse when rainfall was scanty. We used to curse the sun for erratic water supply, not knowing it would be the answer to our problems,” says Veronica Chiwaula, a mother of two in Dauya Village in Dedza.
Almost two kilometres north of the household of 11, solar panels are turning sunlight into electricity for powering two massive boreholes that pump 15 litres per second.
The 63-kilowatt system powering two deep boreholes personifies the power of the sun to heal water stress made worse by drought.
The government through the Ministry of Forestry and Natural Resources has drilled 14 high-yielding boreholes under the project triggered by prolonged drought in 2015.
“Unlike in the past, we get continuous water supply except when there is a fault. This has reduced the long walks to overcrowded hand pumps and unprotected sources that fuelled waterborne diseases,” says the Central Region Water Board (CRWB) customer.
Bankum Malunga, CRWB zone manager for Dedza Zone, says solar energy has reduced monthly electricity consumption by 1 200 kilowatts and increased water supply in the two towns from less than eight hours a day to about 20 hours,” he explains.
The energy bills have dipped from K2.4 million to K1.3 million in Ntcheu and K3.1 million to K1.7 million in Dedza, he says.
“As we supply adequate water using solar energy, we are increasing our savings and revenue for further improvement of water provision,” Malunga explains.
A similar change is happening in the scorching sunshine of Salima along the shoreline of Lake Malawi. The district is reaping dividends of supplementing intermittent hydropower with solar energy.
“Customers, who once received water for less than 15 hours daily, now enjoy continuous supply for five hours more. This has almost halved the bill CRWB used to pay for grid power,” says Nkhotakota-Salima Scheme manager Phillip Kaingo.
Interestingly, solar energy does not emit smoke and fumes like fuel that results in air pollution and climate change, which makes drought more frequent and severe.
Sustainable energy also accelerates the national pace to achieve Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) six: Universal access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene by 2030.
As the decade of action fades, new customers are getting connected to the $9 billion MDRRP groundwater systems established to increase the resilience of critical water supply infrastructure.
This includes the drilling of six high-yielding boreholes for CRWB and eight for the Southern Region Water Board (SRWB).
Looking forward, Kaingo says: “You know many industries are growing, including the water supply sector. We require a lot of power and the demand is increasing, so we need to explore alternative power sources such as solar.
“This will help us supply our customers 24/7 as Escom is struggling to supply other sectors. I wish more funds were available for the Water Board to extend solar-powered boreholes not only in Salima but also Dwangwa and Nkhotakota.” Interestingly, even the boreholes exclusively powered by Escom are also counting the gains.