Mary Khobiri, a nurse-cum-midwife at Mangamba Health Centre in Machinga, harbours the joy of hearing a baby crying in a maternity ward.
It signified the birth of a new life and everyone looked happy as she signalled her friend: “Bring me water to bath the mother and her newborn.”
For her, having running water in the maternity ward is a blessing—a lifesaver.
“As a nurse and midwife, it is my responsibility to ensure that both the mother and her baby are safe and well taken care of at this most important moment in everyone’s life.
“Access to clean water ensures that the mother is well cleaned after delivery to avoid infections, such as sepsis,” she says.
Khobiri and her team handle about 20 deliveries every day.
The caregivers also need to protect themselves from infections transmitted through bodily fluids such as blood.
“To do that, I need clean water for washing my hands before and after assisting a client.Unfortunately, the water pump which supplied the entire health centre was stolen two months ago.
“The theft of our water pump was heart-breaking because I cannot effectively do my job without water. This does not only affect me but also mothers and babies,” she explains.
Khobiri’s hospital had no running water before the water pump was installed. She used to accompany women who had just given birth to a nearby river, a 25-minute walk that would take the women in pain about 40 minutes.
“As a caregiver, I felt sorry for the women who had no access to clean water after giving birth. Blood was dripping down their legs and there was no water in sight,” she states.
‘Just in case…’
A guardian had to take the mothers to the river, but Khobiri often volunteered “just in case something terrible happened along the way”.
“Those with guardians to fetch water for them found it easier to clean themselves after giving birth. Some had to go through this painful experience alone and others would collapse on the way,” she recalls.
Due to the high number of deliveries, it was difficult for the health workers to store enough water for the maternity ward.
Khobiri remembers the agonies of a teen mother “who came here alone and wanted to avoid the long walk to the river” after giving birth.
“She opted to fetch water just before delivering, but ended up giving birth on the riverbank. We rushed there and saved her life and the baby. The painful experiences are back following the theft of our water pump,” she narrates.
Midwives like Khobiri face difficulties caring for mothers and babies without running water for washing hands and sterilising their tools. The staff toilets also become unusable.
Since women lose a lot of blood when giving birth, health workers have to protect themselves from likely infections such as HIV. Without clean water, childbearing becomes a huge risk to them.
Besides, they have difficulties cleaning their delivery packs, which they now send to Machinga District Hospital, almost 60 kilometres away. Sometimes, it takes more than a week to get the sterilised utensils back.
A string of water pump thefts has left many healthcare centres in this dire situation.
Between April 2020 and March 2021, thieves have stolen water pumps from more than five centres in Machinga District alone—and no one has been arrested for the criminal acts.
Meanwhile, women who have just given birth leave drops of blood on the ground as they search for water-related services, losing their dignity along the way.
The country needs to prioritise the dignity and welfare of mothers while protecting health workers.
As Covid-19 prevention requires everyone to frequently wash hands with soap, Khobiri and her team continue to face the challenge of nursing mothers and newborns trapped in a ward with inadequate supply of clean water, hygiene and sanitation.
This exposes them to preventable infections. According to the Ministry of Health, 52 percent of outpatients in the country’s hospitals seek treatment for diseases associated with limited access to safe water, hygiene and sanitation both at home and in healthcare facilities.
Diarrhoea is the fifth leading cause of death and disability globally.
The disease slows down the growth of children while the breakdown in water, sanitation and hygiene in health facilities put patients, guardians and health workers at risk of infections that contribute towards increasing use and the growing resistance to antibiotics.