Despite sitting on vast and perennial water reservoirs, a number of Malawians continue to struggle to access safe water. Why is this case? In the second series of access to safe water, our news analyst EPHRAIM NYONDO digs this in detail.
If it were not for the Catholic Development Commission in Malawi (Cadecom)—a Catholic Church development arm which drilled a borehole in their area three years ago—Maggie Mafunasi and almost 600 other villagers from Group Village Kaliati, Traditional Authority Kunthembwe, Blantyre, could still have been drinking unsafe water from a well.
Mafunasi said that they were times, especially during the dry season, when the well could dry up, leaving them in complete destitution.
“We struggled heavily,” she says.
The paradox of her plight, something she lived with since her childhood in the late 60s, is that her village stands just few metres from Shire River, the country’s largest perennial water reservoir.
“We could always ask ourselves: Why are we struggling without water when Shire is just a stone throw away? Why is our government failing to take water from the river and provide it to us through taps?” continues Mafunasi.
The questions Kaliati villagers raised before Cadecom drilled the borehole sit at the heart of the country’s failure to provide ‘Water and Sanitation for All, Always,’ as envisioned by the 2005 National Water Policy.
Malawi, it must be underlined, is not Botswana: a country with half of its area covered by Kalahari Hot Desert. We are a country that comprises a network of river systems (such as the Shire, Ruo, South Rukuru, Songwe etc.) and lakes (e.g., Lake Malawi, Lake Chilwa, Lake Malombe and Lake Chiuta) that cover more than 20 percent of the country’s territorial area.
Yet against that—despite statistics painting a rosy water access picture—almost 20 percent of the population continues to use unsafe water drawn from wells.
In the first place, however, it is important to understand the context of water production and provision in the country.
Production and provision of safe and clean water in the country—both to the local and the industry, as stipulated in the Water Work Act, lies with the government.
The government—through the five water boards established and operating under the Works Act—provides free water to the rural areas and at subsidised rate to low income households.
Noting the boards’ failure to reach all and sundry, especially in the rural areas due to capacity constraints, different non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have also come into the picture to, at least, complement government’s efforts.
So you have a concerted team of water boards, funded by government, and NGOs, funded by donors, operating in a country rich with water reservoirs and poised to provide ‘Water and Sanitation for All, Always’.
Yet that is not happening. What could be problem?
According to a paper titled ‘Water demand management in Malawi: problems and prospects for its promotion’ by researchers Wapulumuka Mulwafu, Chinyamata Chipeta, Bryson Nkhoma and others, one of the critical challenges at the heart of water development in the country is organisational.
“The main suppliers of water in urban areas are parastatals. Economic efficiency is their objective. However, pricing for their water is subject to control by the government. So, they are not free to use price as an instrument for controlling demand. Rural water is supplied through boreholes and piped water schemes by NGOs and the Water Supply Department. Financial gain or economic efficiency is not the objective of these organisations,” it reads.
This organisational problem, continues the paper, breeds the cyclic financial constraints.
“Cash flow problems of water boards caused by high levels of trade debtors, inability to obtain loans and limited eligibility for donor aid, all of which prevent them from modernising their water distribution systems and water meters; and budgetary constraints in regulatory institutions,” it reads.
Against such flaws in organisational structure, budgetary allocation to the water, hygiene and sanitation sector, according to a 2013 study by Cadecom, exhibited a downward pattern.
The study shows that in the 2011/2012 financial year, MK7.27 billion, later revised upwards to MK7.822 billion, was allocated to the sector. It adds that in the 2012/2013 fiscal year, the figure went down to MK4.63 billion, representing a drop of about 41 percent. For the 2013/14 budget, further reveals the study, the Ministry of Water Development and Irrigation has been allocated about MK16 billion, and this covers all water-related activities, and from history the focus has been on irrigation not access to safe and clean water.
“Against this background, district commissioners (DCs) and other government officials argue that budgetary allocations to the WASH sector in their districts are far too little to make meaningful impact in communities.
“For example, in Phalombe, the district receives less than K1 million a year for water, sanitation and hygiene. This is only enough for administrative work. For other districts, the situation is no better, according to the sources who said the money is only enough for maintaining minor damages to the boreholes,” reads the study signed by Cadecom’s head Casterns Mulume.
In fact, maintaining and repairing water points is another critical challenge facing the water sector in the country. A Joint 2011 Sector Performance Review of the water and sanitation sector in the country identified that only 63 percent of water points were functional.
“Yes, governments and NGOs need funds to finance water infrastructure across Malawi. However, once the financing is secured and infrastructure has been put into place, there is hardly a question of repairing the water points. This means that even if we secured all the financing we need for the necessary water infrastructure, the systems will break down and we are then stuck in another cycle of having to secure more financing,” says Muthi Nhlema, grants manager for Water for People.
Despite the funding challenges, monitoring and repairing existing water system is quite a critical problem. Cadecom attributes this problem to lack of capacity and sometimes presence of community water management committees.
“Our assessment in nine districts revealed that in most communities where boreholes have been sunk, either through government-funded programmes such as Local Development Fund (LDF) or Constituency Development Fund (CDF), communities are not equipped with skills to manage water facilities.
“The situation is different in areas where NGOs, such as Cadecom and Water Aid, drill boreholes in the sense that they establish water management committees which are trained in repairing boreholes and managing the surroundings.
“District water officers in the districts sampled indicated that their budget lines are too small to undertake such training programmes in communities, let alone, to establish the committees or revamp them where they were already established,” says Mulume.
Mulwafu and others also single out policy and legal environment in the water sector as another challenge. They argue that policies and strategies do not explicitly provide for water development and management in the country.
Such sentiments are echoed by Cadecom’s review of the 2005 National Water Policy and its role in the WASH Sector.
While admitting its importance, Mulume argues that the application of the policy becomes tricky to isolate what it says on specific issues and apply them in various project undertakings.
“It is not surprising, therefore, that while the policy emphasises on decentralisation and community participation in water and sanitation projects, there is a different picture on the ground where interviews with various people indicate that some communities feel that water projects take a supply-driven and not demand-driven approach as the policy stipulates,” he said.
He added that the policy’s full implementation still faces hiccups as other instruments that should enable its maximum execution have not been put in place.
“Although government has made several attempts to establish the body, the efforts are yet to bear fruits. In the absence of such an instrument, it is the beneficiaries of effective water management activities, the citizens, who suffer,” he said.