Government and the World Bank envisaged that Nthalire Rural Growth Centre would unlock “a window to sustainable development.” But taps watering the rise of the rural setting in Chitipa have become a model of how funding matters in ensuring safe water for hard-to-reach populations
For onlookers, Group Village Head Chipekupeku’s household in Nthalire, Rumphi, is a tale of two worlds.
As we negotiated a rugged road cutting through the green forests that meet travellers throughout the hilly terrain in the rainy season, we saw the Dickensian affair both shocking and pleasing to the eye in his Lubembe Village.
From a distance, the grass-roofed royal house looks like any other hut in the village and its vicinity—the type President Joyce Banda describes as peculiar and unwanted in the present Malawi.
Moving closer, water spurting from a tap in the shadow of the hut’s grass thatch comes into view, confirming that it is no longer strange for the rural dwellers to enjoy the life-saving service once confined to towns, cities and other urban settings.
According to Chipekupeku, the gush of treated water is a sign of development in the majestic territory that tourists and photographers searching for panoramic views often mistake for a picturesque ever-green natural forest.
“The captivating canopy you see across the hills and valleys vanishes like dew when the rainy season ends, leaving behind leafless trees standing on hills that are as dry as a bone,” said the traditional leader on why women used to walk up to 10 kilometres in search of clean water before the taps came by.
Warring for dry wells
According to Chipekupeku, those who could not stand the long walk to the boreholes, which remain far apart and prone to breakdowns, grew up relying on streams that flash murky waters into North Rukuru River.
From the shadows of the grass thatch of their hut, Chipekupeku’s wife, Hilda Msukwa, shook her head as she remembered how the endless queues and scrambles for water in the few boreholes used to take away their most useful hours of the day.
“Apart from walking long distances, we had to spend about five hours waiting for our turn as the boreholes couldn’t cope with the demand.
“When the boreholes were dry, even pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers had to endure the long walk to Rukuru where the water is muddy and scarily speedy,” said Msukwa.
Because of the distance, the villagers learnt to use a 20-litre pail of water for drinking, washing, mopping and bathing.
Now the Chipekupeku royal family and their neighbours no longer have to recycle untreated water, a substitute which used to expose them to diarrhoea, scabies, lice and other threats to their well-being.
Leading by example, the household connected to a piped water system in March last year. They have every reason to thank the World Bank-funded Infrastructure Development Programme for improving water supply in the area.
Up to 13 people in Chipekupeku’s Lubembe Village have followed their footsteps, records show.
Looking at the development Malawians in Nthalire never envisioned five years ago, Msukwa says the hiss of the taps pouring into pails in the shadow of her hut symbolises a new song: Farewell to the long journeys to risky water points, welcome safe water at the doorstep.
Yet, Chipekupeku only had to sell a few chickens and guinea fowls to amass the K5 000 they required to connect to the system installed by Nthalire Water Users Association in 2012 as part of transforming Nthalire into a rural growth centre.
“It is incredible that some of us have treated tap water in the village, but it will be good if this opportunity was extended to many that are still thirsting for safe water drops,” he implored.
Reaching the unreached
According to Nthalire Water Users local utility operator Edward Mwandira, 20 000 residents are benefitting from 403 taps installed so far. Save for five communal taps at Nthalire Trading Centre, the figure represents a bulging rural population with easy access to safe water.
Confronted by the cry for safer water drops, Mwandira says the unreached majority should expect “good things” because the water users’ strategic plan requires them to expand the water network to 1 000 taps by the end of this year.
“We started with five taps exclusively for the radius of 2.5 kilometres from Nthalire Rural Growth Centre, but now we are already reaching about 20 000 people even those living about 16 kilometres from the marketplace,” said the water engineer.
During the visit, Mwandira took us on a guided tour of the project, giving a glimpse of two electric boreholes where the safe water that has drastically liberated residents from sweaty walks in search of water originates.
Placards at the two sources show the pipes of the bigger borehole sink 90 metres into the depth of the ground while those of the shallower measure 75 metres.
Mwandira said the distance the pipes penetrate, nearly the size of a standard football ground, “confirms the dryness underlying the area” where Nthalire sits.
Interestingly, the system is complete with generators which sustain the pumps that feed into a 20 000 cubic metre tank when Escom power grid goes off.
Mwandira estimated that the tank can supply the area for three days if the pumps fall dead due to failure of both the Escom grid and back-up generators.
But to avoid the worst-case scenario, there is a gravity-fed water line which runs 30 kilometres from the intake at Chioti Hills on the picturesque plateau that is Nyika National Park.
“A few years ago, the majority of women were waking up as early as 2am just to avoid the endless queuing as boreholes and wells couldn’t cope with the water requirements for the growing population. The start of the tap water project has eased the scrambles,” said Mwandira.
Amid the success stories, it is not unusual to hear even businesspeople at the trading centre waxing lyrical about how the easy access to portable water is transforming businesses and hygiene at the heart of the fast-growing centre.
For example, restaurant owners say gone are the days customers used to shun their meals at the glance of the dirty water they used to draw from the far-away streams, wells and other unprotected sources.
Now even the choosiest of customers fearing waterborne diseases happily take the once-shunned meals, the entrepreneurs say.
Nthalire Water Users Association vice-chairperson Regina Mzizi feels there is no better assurance that Nthalire is developing than seeing households accessing water within their reach.
“It is pleasing to see more and more households graduating from communal taps to have their own taps at their doorstep,” said Mziza.
Most people are weaning themselves from public water points because of the silent disagreements over settlement of bills, said Mziza.
The monthly payment amounts to an average of K2 000 per household, the association’s records show.
Mziza said more and more people are willing to foot the bill, unlike Likoma and Chizumulu islands where a similar project was ruined by a public outcry as people who had grown up drinking free water from Lake Malawi saw no logic in paying for the piped water.
Yet, Mwandira and Mziza said the bill payment rate has to double up for Nthalire Water Users Association to accomplish the projects in its strategic plan.
Meanwhile, sights of women sweating it out at a borehole have become an encounter with the past.
In two hours, only three women were spotted pumping water at a borehole near Nthalire Community Hall which was constructed as part of the rural growth centre project.
Looking back, one of the women at the borehole bemoaned that they used to sacrifice a good part of productive hours of the day on the queue, scrambling for the slow sips and drips typical of the lowering water levels.
“We no longer queue. Now we are getting treated water right at home. Cases of diarrhoea have dropped drastically,” said Mziza.
People of Nthalire personify that it is possible for government to supply safe water to hard-to-reach communities.
“With proper funding, it is possible,” said Chipekupeku.