Daily scramble for water part of life for millions in Malawi

Residents of Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe, tell journalist Winston Mwale about their daily struggle for water.

Women take turns to draw water from one of the wells at Mtsiliza, Lilongwe. Photo: Winston Mwale

It’s around 3 AM in Kauma, one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe. 

Eluby Matengula, in her late 50s, together with several other women, is already clamouring for water at one of the unprotected wells in the area.

She says fighting among women as they scramble for water is a common sight around here. 

“Women sometimes accuse each other of finishing the water, resulting in some people going for days without water,” Matengula says. “Since independence [in 1964], up to this year, save for the only kiosk [water selling points] whose taps often run dry, this area has had no borehole, not even a single one. We drink water which is dirty.” 

Matengula, who looks tired and worn out, says that apart from the water kiosk, the only “reliable” community water source is a muddy well. That, she explains, “bathes children, cleans laundry, and is shared by livestock, as well as members of the community alike.”

Fifty-six years after independence, potable water is still a literal pipe-dream for many people in Lilongwe and elsewhere in Malawi

Matengula is typical of poorer families living in Malawi, who spend much of their time scavenging for water from unprotected sources because the crippled economy means they cannot afford to buy water from LWB kiosks (community water selling points).

Fifty-six years after independence, potable water is still a literal pipe-dream for many people in Lilongwe and elsewhere in Malawi.

In Lilongwe, the women of Kauma often resort to collecting dirty water, that they need to boil to make it safe to drink. Photo: Winston Mwale

According to the 2018 Population Housing Census, less than 10 percent of the (then) population of just over 17.5-million Malawians had access to piped water in their homes. Of these, 3.1 percent had water piped directly into their homes, while a further 6.3% had piped water available in their yards. A further 61.7% of Malawians used boreholes for water and 8.1% used a community standpipe to access water. The remaining people, comprising just over 20 percent of Malawi’s population, accessed water from “unprotected sources”, according to the PHC report.

Piped water is much safer than water from boreholes, because it is treated before being distributed to users. Many of the boreholes that residents rely on are broken down, forcing communities to seek out less sanitary water sources.

The World Bank reports that unsafe drinking water and poor sanitation in both Malawi’s rural and urban areas remain a binding constraint on the country’s growth and poverty reduction: 

“Malawi’s development challenges are multi-pronged, including vulnerability to external shocks such as weather and health. Other challenges include rapid population growth and environmental degradation.” 

The bank estimates that Malawi loses about US$3.8 per capita or 1.1% of the country’s GDP due to poor health outcomes attributed to, among other things, low access to safely managed sanitation services, dwindling  water  resources,  lagging  infrastructure development,  and  aging  water  systems  that create  large  gaps  between supply  and  demand,  leading  to  unreliable services.

Another common problem occurs when the water utility board doesn’t install any of these kiosks in an area, or when those who are meant to run these water selling points don’t show up for work. For example, on the day I visited Kauma, the taps at one of the water selling points, which are meant to provide water for hundreds every day, were dry. According to the women I met at the kiosks, they had been dry since the morning. 

“Although some boil the water before use, the majority of us just use it as it, dirty as it is. This often causes [water-borne diseases like] cholera.” 

– Eliza Zidana

And there was no sign of the water kiosk attendant. 

The women who’d arrived at the kiosk to buy water said this was not the first time this had happened. When the attendant is a no-show, the women – some with babies strapped to their backs – flock to the shallow wells or rivers nearby to collect water.

Young mother Eliza Zidana explains: “It’s impossible for all us to draw water during the day at the water kiosk. So, some of us come at night, while others try their luck during the day at this well here. Even during the night, women always scramble for water which they have to boil before use, or use straight away in some cases. Although some boil the water before use, the majority of us just use it as it, dirty as it is. This often causes [water-borne diseases like] cholera.” 

A young girl from Kauma fills up a jerry can with water drawn from a borehole, a source that has only become available in the last year, according to residents of the area. Photo: Winston Mwale

In the age of Covid-19, this is an even bigger problem than usual, when water is so crucial for regular hygiene.

But it’s hardly a new concern for the people of Kauma. For eight months in 2017, the area received water only at night. It was also hit by an outbreak of cholera in 2018, which sickened 33 people and killed three. 

Grace Richard lost her nine-year-old son to the disease during that outbreak. The trauma of the event is still etched on her face today. Her loss, she says, is all “because of the dirty water that we get directly from Lilongwe River.” 

And Kauma is not the only community in the capital begging for clean, reliable water. In Mitengo, also in the capital and which recorded 16 cholera cases in 2018, both the water distribution process and the alternative water sources used by the community have proven to be health hazards. 

At times, as in the wake of the 2018 cholera outbreak, others have had to intervene to help, with UNICEF Malawi and other organisations stepping up to distribute safe water in Mitengo.

But this problem isn’t unique to Kauma or Mitengo: Lilongwe’s low-income earners continue to struggle, not just economically, but also in terms of water access. 

A woman draws water from an official water kiosk in Kauma. Photo: Winston Mwale

In Area 36, Block Leader Lemison Banda, known as Mwenyekondo, who has lived in the neighborhood for 40 years, says the streets around his home are known for a foul smell that hangs in the air due to water and sanitation problems.  

But clean water was not always a struggle, according to Mkwenyekondo: “We had a water board kiosk which catered for the whole area since the population was small. But now we have more people, yet the only supply still remains a single kiosk built in the 1980s.” 

The official line

The Block Leader says they’ve sought answers and support from the Lilongwe Water Board, but they are often met with what they describe as “unclear and confusing explanations” from officials.

So, hoping to get some answers, I spoke to the board’s then acting CEO, Moses Mwenye. Yes, he says, he knows what is happening – he’s seen it first-hand.

“I have personally gone to such [water-poor] areas, and I must say you can actually see the need [for water] and you can see the challenges that these communities are facing,” he says.

But his answers don’t hold out much hope for a quick solution.

While Lilongwe Water Board’s former acting CEO, Moses Mwenye admits there are major challenges in water-poor areas around the country, his answers do not necessarily point to a quick, simple solution. Photo: Winston Mwale

“It’s sad, but we need to work with relevant stakeholders [which include the Lilongwe City Council and Ministry of Finance] to see how best we can ensure that such low-income households access water just like everyone else,” says Mwenye. In 2019 the LWB budget was $40 million. 

Part of the blame, he suggests, lies with residents themselves. Most of the households in the affected areas have not applied for individual water installation, even though the Lilongwe Water Board supplies these areas, he says. 

But this may be because of high connection fees. Generally, the people in these locations are poor and say they can’t afford to pay for the water connection fees, which are anything from $54 to $94. 

He concedes other solutions must also be considered.

Mwenye says the water utility body has plans in the pipeline to bail out the capital’s water-poor citizens.

“For example, we plan to increase the number of water kiosks in these areas as well as ensuring that the price of water in these selling points is reduced so that the poor pay less,” he says. With the project in phase one, it is yet to be seen whether these plans, as outlined by Mwenye, would materialise.

How water shortages impact the affluent

While poor areas, like Kauma struggle, wealthier areas report experiencing only rare and brief water outages. Take Area 47, for example. Just like in other affluent areas, residents receive warnings of impending water problems well in advance, so they can plan accordingly.

“The short supply period normally lasts for a minimum of two hours or a maximum of a full day,” says an unidentified resident in this better-off area, who was quoted in a research paper.

In addition, people from these high-income groups have alternative water supplies they can rely on when there are water shortages. This includes high capacity water storage tanks in their backyards. When there’s a good supply of water, these tanks are filled and only used in times of need.

Moreover, affluent residents can afford transportation of water from neighbouring towns, if needed.

While the disparity between the haves and the have nots on issues of water access is stark, it is not a problem without a solution. And the experience of the wealthier residents, who have developed systems to address temporary water shortages, may offer some clues as to how to equalize access.

Hopes pinned on World Bank-funded project

The Lilongwe Water Board is banking on the multi-million dollar World Bank-funded Lilongwe Water and Sanitation Project (LWSP), which Mwenye says will benefit half a million people — or almost 50% of residents of Malawi’s capital city and surrounding areas — through improved water services and safely managed sanitation. The implementation of the project is “on course,” he says. 

“The first phase of the project was fixing the distribution network as many pipes are old and bust now and again,” he says. “So, through this project we have managed to replace the piping network in the city.” 

The Lilongwe Water Board has pinned its hopes on the multi-million dollar World Bank-funded project, Lilongwe Water and Sanitation Project. Photo: Winston Mwale

“And going forward, we will increase production by building a third treatment plant to produce more water.”

The project will also allow for the upgrading of 142 km of existing distribution network and expand the distribution network by about 186 km to areas of the city not currently served by piped water.  

The proposed network expansion areas include Area 25, western bypass, Nanjiri, Chitedze and Mchezi, low-income areas that have also been facing water challenges over the years.These areas have registered considerable development over the last five years, but currently lack a potable water supply and most of the areas do not have a piped water network, according to the World Bank.

World Bank Country Manager for Malawi, Greg Toulmin, says: “Lilongwe City faces considerable water security challenges that must be addressed urgently to serve the growing population and enhance economic activities in the capital.” 

Through the project, Lilongwe’s water demand will reach almost three times the current supply of water by 2035. 

Subject to increasing water production capacity, the network interventions will result in expanded coverage, the World Bank says. An additional 14,700 households will be connected to the network and receive improved water services.

“The supply system is already under strain,” Toulmin says.  “However, through this project the World Bank will ease that pressure through priority investments in water distribution network rehabilitation, as well as sanitation improvements to keep up with city requirements.” 

Looking straight into my eyes, Matengula of Kauma says, “If families in places like Lilongwe are spending more time and energy just to access water than to work, it is a setback to national development – and surely authorities in a country where only two in three people have clean water need to do something as a matter of urgency.” 

Only time will tell if the World Bank has fully taken her words to heart.


PODCAST: Residents of Kauma tell journalist Winston Mwale about their daily struggle for water

Listen to the podcast here

This story was produced with support from the Centre for Collaberative Investigative Journalism

Access to water a barrier to poverty reduction

The World Bank reports that unsafe drinking water and poor sanitation in both Malawi’s rural and urban areas remain a binding constraint to the country’s growth and poverty reduction.

The Bank estimates that Malawi loses about 1.1% of the country’s GDP due to poor health outcomes attributed to, among other things, low access to safely managed sanitation services.

In Malawi, a country with an “ultra” poverty rate of 22 percent, hardly a day passes without scores of desperate people – mostly women, some with their babies strapped on their backs – moving around in groups in search of water. Some must travel long distances to reach a water source. 

Lilongwe’s story is all too common on the continent; studies of water supply for other African cities point to the same issues again and again: inequalities in access, reliability and affordability.  

And here, as elsewhere, people spend a great deal of time and energy searching for water. This has negative health and economic effects, such as the waterborne disease of cholera. 

Clearly, if families in places like Lilongwe are spending more time and energy just to access water than to work, it is a setback to national development – and surely authorities in a country where only two in three people have clean water need to do something as a matter of urgency.

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