A day long without water can be bearable, but for Machinjiri and Chirimba residents, the situation lasted over five days. Vandals had broken one of the main pipes that distribute water to the areas near South Lunzu tank.
“Everything is disrupted when there is no water. Our children miss classes to fetch water, and we cannot cook or bathe without water,” says Harry Makoti, a resident of Machinjiri.
According to Makoti, a security guard at one of the shops at the trading centre in Machinjiri, the area is subjected to stingy smells of faeces during such times.
“There are many people here who, when their flush toilets have no water, use plastic bags, then dump the human wastes in waterways and other places. This is very unhygienic and a health risk,” says Makoti.
Some have even lost their marriages due to lack of water.
Stellia Mateyo of Bokosa Village in the central Malawi district of Salima told The Nation of October 15, 2012 that her husband divorced her in February the same year on suspicion that her long journeys in search of water during wee hours of the day were an excuse to meet other men.
Hospitals, schools and busy industries such as Carlsberg Malawi suffer too when there is no water.
The effects of vandalism of water supply facilities are many. As the saying goes, water is life, and so without it, people are inconvenienced. But the effects are not felt by consumers alone. Even water suppliers are affected since they foot the bill of water lost to vandalism and repairing vandalised pipes, for example.
For instance, Blantyre Water Board (BWB) and Lilongwe Water Board (LWB) say they lose about 40 percent of their water to pipe cuts caused by vandalism every year.
“We are losing close to K4 million every month due to vandalism,” says Trevor Phoya, LWB public relations officer.
He said the water board is left with the challenge of maintenance of broken infrastructure, replacing stolen water supply items and lost revenue.
“There seems to be growing cases of deliberate vandalism, especially in low-income areas such as Area 23, 24, 36 and 25; where people deliberately break water pipes or valves in order to draw water illegally,” he says.
Another water supplier in rural areas within Blantyre, Joshua Orphan and Community Care (Jocc) also laments increased vandalism of boreholes.
Executive director of Jocc, Sylvia Avgherinos, says about 18 boreholes have been vandalised in five of the areas they are operating in. These are; Chelewani, Baluti, Manyowe, Nancholi and Pensulo in Blantyre.
“Vandalism of public property is the greatest challenge for Malawi. People do not know who owns the services and the impact that comes with their practice. Repairing a borehole is expensive nowadays, but some irresponsible citizens just ignore the whole process,” says Avgherinos, adding that they recently spent K75 000 to repair one of the vandalised boreholes.
She adds that at one point, vandals removed some parts of a water reservoir tank at their clinic in Pensulo.
“The tank was holding thousands of litres of water at the time and all the water was lost,” she said.
In Chikhwawa, over 1 724 boreholes were recently sunk, but 645 have been vandalised, according to Water for People Malawi, a non-governmental organisation that works on improving access to safe water to people across the country.
Innocent Mbvundula, BWB public relations officer, says most vandalism is done by people who want to draw water for free, while others use the steel pipes to produce various tools such as knives.
He adds that most people who vandalise its pipes are businesspeople who export water.
“We are yet to do a thorough research on why people are vandalising our pipes, but from the people we captured while abusing our services, we established that some of them are businesspeople and they do it to draw water for free which they later export outside the country,” says Mbvundula.
Similarly, Avgherinos says Jocc has not carried out research to establish why many boreholes are being vandalised. However, she agrees that most people who vandalise the boreholes use the products for making tools such as pangas and slashers for use and for sale.
She attributes this to information gap on who really owns community facilities.
Kate Harawa, Water for People Malawi country director, says there is need for urgent action on vandalism of water supply facilities.
She believes the interventions that have been done countrywide are enough to ensure that everyone has access to clean water, but says this has not happened because of vandalism.
“By now, Malawi was supposed to be somewhere because a lot of investment has been done. The most painful thing is that money that was meant to help in supplying water to some people somewhere ends up being used in repairing or replacing vandalised pipes and boreholes. This just derails development,” she says.
Harawa says the battle against vandalism of water supply facilities can only be won through teamwork.
“This year’s water day theme ‘Water cooperation’ is the starting point if we are to win this battle. There is need for teamwork from the household, community and zone, district up to the regional and national levels. We should make sure citizens and institutions know their responsibility on public services in every citizen,” she says
She adds that this can be achieved through intensive sensitisation campaigns in all communities on the impact of vandalism.
“Apart from this, there is need to improve security of the property at community level by involving community policing and also ensure each citizen feels they are part of the services,” Harawa says.
To achieve this, she says there should be community groupings to support the sustainability of the facilities, with community members being trained in how to repair boreholes.
“We may even set up a contribution fees system so that communities help in managing the boreholes,” Harawa says.
However, in some areas, interventions have been carried.
“We have sensitisation programmes on water management every year, but the practice is still rampant. But we are still bringing in new interventions to convince the public that water supply facilities are theirs and any damage to them affects them largely,” says Mbvundula.
As the world celebrates the World Water Day today under the theme ‘Water cooperation’, it is a call for Malawians to think about their role in managing water supply facilities.
“We rely on rivers, lakes and mountains as our main source of water. These sources will be depleted very shortly if we are not careful and it would be a disaster if that happens at this time when citizens do not know their responsibility on public services. Everyone should be responsible and avoid vandalising public property such as water pipes,” says Harawa.