The Double-Edged Sword Facing Malawi’s Water Boards

“It’s really disheartening that for the past 56 years we’ve been reduced to nothing but animals, as we drink alongside animals."

It’s hard to believe, but this is a hard cold fact that will certainly hit you hard like some sledgehammer.

Members of Kasunga Village in Traditional Authority Mkukula in Dowa district in central Malawi have been relying on water from holes gorged on the banks of river Mtofu for the past 56 years, all along copying wish all the troubles of living without running or protected water.

“I have lived in this area for the past 39 years now, and all I can say is that waterborne diseases have been hitting the community hard, year in, year out, with no sign of relief in sight,” Jackson Phiri, one of the community members, says.

“All what authorities have been saying is ‘We’ve heard your water problems’, but never came back.”

Olipa Samuel, a mother of four, and a member of Kasunga community, also testifies to the challenges they have been facing all these years, “As women, we’ve been bearing the brunt, as we have been traveling long distances to access water, which, of course, was not safe, but had no choice.”

“It’s really disheartening that for the past 56 years we’ve been reduced to nothing but animals, as we drink alongside animals. This is despite that we’ve been queuing to vote leaders into office.” 

This community, like many others in Malawi, are facing water challenges because the water boards are struggling to cope with their demands.

A hard cold look at the some of the causes crippling the operations of the country’s water boards reveals that these utilities are facing a double-edged sword: 

The water boards continue experiencing loss of about 43% cubic meters of pumped water through non-revenue water, shifting the burden to residents who face increased tariffs, left with poor or no service, and ultimately pay with their health, time, and productivity.

Again, the water boards in Malawi continue to lose the much-needed revenue with government institutions owing them huge sums of money in form of bills; for example, as of June 2020, government owed these utilities close to K20 billion kwacha [$27 million].

One of the water boards hit by the perennial challenge of non-revenue water, Blantyre Water Board (BWB), reveals that it is losing billions of Kwachas every year due to vandalism, burst pipes and illegal connections among others which results into unaccounted water. 

Statistics show that between January 2020 and June 2020, BWB lost 55.8 percent of its revenue from water sales due to unaccounted for water. 

BWB Chief Executive Officer Eng. Dan Chaweza says, “The loss affects our day to day operations. This is the water that we have produced but have not been paid for or have not passed through our charging metres.”

The situation is the same with the rest of the water boards in the country, losing billions of Kwacha due to non-revenue water.

But this not all: the water boards also face another serious challenge. These water utilities are also failing perform to their optimum, according to the Water Services Association of Malawi, because government ministries, departments and agencies fail to settles their water bills.

In a statement released in reaction to the development, the Water Services Association of Malawi said, “The non-payment of water bills is making the water boards fail to implement a number of projects relating to water supply.”

“The water boards are struggling financially to make new water connections to their customers and extend water supply to other areas within their operating zones,” the statement further said.

Williams Banda, Spokesperson to the Ministry of Finance, which funds the defaulting ministries, departments, and agencies, says government into how best the problem could be dealt with, once and for all.

“The major cause of the accumulation of utility bills from Treasury (Ministry of Finance) point of view is non-priotisation of payment by government ministries, departments, and agencies (MDAs). This will come to an end as water boards are installing prepaid meters in most MDAs,” he says.

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.

The World 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.

While in urban areas, lack of piped water from regulated suppliers in most of parts of the country has seen the sprouting up of some unscrupulous people setting up their own unregulated water systems to quench the thirsts of desperate communities at reasonable financial gains, in rural settings, the villagers, like those from Kasunga Village in Traditional Authority Mkukula in Dowa district, continue to drink from unprotected sources, including from directly from rivers.

Meanwhile, the million dollar question remains: Just when will the double-edged sword of unpaid bills by government agencies and non-revenue water facing Malawi’s water boards disappear?