Achieving Sustainable Development Goals on access to safe water for all requires a renewed focus on populations long neglected by policymakers, JAMES CHAVULA writes.
‘Water is life’ is no new song. But it’s not about whether you have access to water. It’s about where you draw the life-sustaining liquid for drinking and domestic use.
If you live in Karonga, however, this is what district water officer Aaron Chaponda wants you to know: Your right to safe water depends on where you live.
If your area is hard-to-reach and not yet reached in terms of access to safe water, Chaponda seems to think you have yourself to blame for leaving the populous stretches in preference for that secluded spot.
In his reasoning, he says: “You cannot settle in the hills and start complaining: ‘We want boreholes’ That’s very wrong.”
The government official bared his views on people facing geographical setbacks in terms of access to water when Malawi Red Cross Society officials met the district executive committee to wind up a K350 million healthcare initiative in Wasambo setting on the southern part of the shoreline district.
The rural population in Karonga South credits the humanitarian organisation and its Danish counterpart with drilling 24 boreholes, repairing 32 and protecting two springs.
However, the water official minces no words about Vunganthenda and Mwaphoka villages where the newly safeguarded springs are located.
Chaponda likens the area to Nalutepo, an equally constrained hilltop setting on the northern tip of the district.
“The areas are hilly; there are primary schools and people feel they are entitled to basic services, including water. But, please, tell them not to live in hard-to-reach areas,” he said about the areas decisionmakers often sidestep.
He commended the development partners for assisting government to provide safe water in far-flung areas, but highlighted: “The people of Vunganthenda settled there deliberately.”
The remarks may offer town planning students a lesson on where people ought not to settle. However,they sound insensitive and likely to exclude the poor rural dwellers in the remotest pockets of the country where access to water is low and aburden of waterborne diseases high.
Actually, there could be a thin line between setting standards and neglecting long excluded minorities.
Mtafu Manda, a senior lecturer in town planning at Mzuzu University, warns against silent forms of discrimination that put voiceless citizens vulnerable to everyday and seasonal disasters.
Said Manda: “To figure out discrimination based on geographical location, there is need to find out why people settled where they are, who they are, what they do and why they do what they do.”
When asked, Group Village Vunganthenda revealed the area comprises Tumbukas who migrated from Rumphi in search of land for agriculture, especially production of maize, bananas and beans.
“The number of people is increasing, but land isn’t. Only soil fertility is going. This area assures us of a good harvest,” said the village leader.
According to World Bank, there are about 177 people per kilometre in the country, up from almost 100 in 1990.
Ironically, recent census shows Rumphi, with almost 35 people per kilometre, is the least densely populated district.
The people escaping the district with the lowest population density point to harsh realities resulting from population pressure hitting the country.
It was a tumultuous time for the cut-off Malawians in Vunganthenda and Mwaphoka.
Last year, when the country was commemorating 50 years since British rule was overthrown, their cries for safe water that had been suppressed were getting louder.
Actually, the 175 households, perching on top of leafy mountains that offer picturesque views of Lake Malawi and Nyika Plateau, were long sick and tired of long, rocky walks to draw water from the same springs as wild animals and livestock.
Recently, minister responsible for water development Dr Allan Chiyembekeza dialled up the call for water for all, telling Northern Region Water Board officials: “We need to look beyond supplying urban settings alone because rural Malawians have a right to clean water as well.”
The isolated occupants of ‘the island in the sky’ thank the Red Cross Society for installing a concrete shell to safeguard the spring from hyenas, snakes, birds, monkeys, pigs, goats and cattle.
Looking back, Margret Kumwenda, 33, says: “It’s amazing we have not been wiped out by cholera and other diseases. The protected springs will reduce the burden of waterborne diseases and the time women and children waste fetching water.”
The people, who spend almost four hours surmounting rocky pathways across hills and valleys to get to Lwezga Health Centre, were often bed – ridden by diarrhoea, says Vunganthenda.
“For the first time since independence in 1964, I feel someone sees us as human beings, who require water,” he says.
The community does not cry for voices justifying exclusion.
It wants the strides towards safe water to open more taps for basic amenities.
They demand a better school, a better healthcare facility and a better road in their midst.
Yet minorities in rural areas face a greater risk of dying of water-related diseases than their counterpart in populous localities. Because their settlements are far-flung, not yet developed and difficult to reach, they are at an especially high risk of being forsaken or bypassed when it comes to distributing the water sources that comes with the national cake.
As a matter of fact, Red Cross’ interventions on the two hills set an example of the task to deliver lasting solutions to wean underserved populations from unclean water.
“We decided to secure existing springs because the terrain is so tricky trucks for drilling boreholes cannot get there,” Red Cross project manager Gloria Kunyenga says when asked about the innovation. Locals prefer to call the improved water sources.
What motivated the humanitarian organisation to invest in the wellbeing of the hilly settings a government official finds guilty of being too ill placed to expect any services?
Kunyenga said: “We work where people are suffering regardless of where they live.
Our job is to lessen human suffering. We have done our best and we urge other institutions to come in and help reduce numerous challenges in Vunganthenda and other hard-to-reach areas.”
Kunyenga urges organisations to focus beyond towns and roadside communities, saying outbreaks of waterborne diseases in rural areas have the propensity to spread to the rest of the population.
“There problem is our problem. In case of cholera, urban areas will be affected and government will still spend money to mitigate the disaster,” she said.
The trends of infections offer the likes of Chaponda food for thought, with Vunganthenda residents constantly interacting with communities downhill. Besides access to healthcare services, they buy and sell vitals goods at Lwezga–a trading centre split by the country’s longest transport corridor, M1, which has the potential to convey infectious diseases from Chitipa to Nsanje.
The country wastes almost an annual K8.8 billion tackling ill effects of causes related to water and sanitation, World Bank reports.
“Approximately 8 800 Malawians, including 4 500 children under 5, die each year from diarrhoea – nearly 90 percent of which is directly attributed to poor water, sanitation and hygiene [Wash],” reads the study into the economic impacts of sanitation in Africa. n