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6 Years To 2030 - Water Quality Still a Challenge In Malawi

6 Years To 2030 - Water Quality Still a Challenge In Malawi

As nations of the world work to meet the United Nations 2030 deadline on provision of safe and potable water to citizens, in Malawi, it is becoming increasingly clear that the goal may not be met on time.

While water and sanitation infrastructure is already inadequate to provide quality water, the effects of natural disasters such as storms and cyclones have worsened the situation.

With six years to 2030, millions of Malawians, especially in the Southern region, are still drawing water from unprotected sources. And, in some cases, even sources that should ordinarily provide quality water are not because the infrastructure is damaged and taking contaminated water to the people.

Kalaliki Bakha, has never used water from any safe source.

All his life living in Chiwamba, in the area of village head Kavalasanza under Traditional Authority (T/A) Chimutu in Lilongwe, Bakha has known the village shallow well and close-by rivers as the only available sources of water.

“Access to water is a challenge here. There are about 285 people in this area and we drink water from a stream. I am 45-years-old and I have never used water from a borehole but the stream that I am telling you about. That is all we depend on.”

Access to quality potable water is a need that is in extremely high demand in Malawi. In fact, limited access to quality potable water has been linked to a myriad of health problems in the country.

Chief among these health problems is disease outbreaks - notably cholera.

But the problem of low-quality water for most Malawians is also linked to natural disasters.

After a long break in Malawi, cholera outbreaks became pronounced again around March 2022 when disaster triggered by tropical storm Anna and Cyclone Gombe struck all districts in the country.

And just when the nation thought normalcy was returning; Cyclone Freddy struck, bringing the largest cholera outbreak reported in this country in 10 years at that point.

Freddy has arguably been the natural calamity that caused the most disaster in Malawi’s recorded history.

Like Cyclone Gombe and tropical storm Anna earlier, Freddy triggered unprecedented floods. And that worsened the cholera outbreak that was otherwise subsiding. Thousands got infected.

Thousands died too. The most deaths from cholera in this part of Africa was in Malawi.

This was largely attributed to contamination of water sources. Ironically, it was not only unprotected sources that had contaminated water. Even piped systems were damaged by Freddy.

Innocent Manda is the Deputy Director of Water Resources in the Ministry of Water and Sanitation responsible for water quality. He admits that water quality is a challenge in the country.

“Water quality in this country is a challenge because it is a two-way issue. I’d say where there are waterboards; the quality of water is good but where there is no any form of treatment, there is a lot of alteration in the water quality. So, the contamination was both in terms of piped water as well as ground water.

“When we increased the number of water points, then came Cyclone Freddy. As we are talking now, there are a lot of floods taking place along the lakeshore and they can cause havoc in terms of destruction of water facilities. It is like we go a step forward and we are then taken ten steps backwards.”

Manda was referring to a rapid water quality assessment carried out by the Ministry of Water and Sanitation and Unicef in 2023 in 11 districts which found that water sources were contaminated and held water not fit for human use.

At least 467 water points were sampled and tested and a lot in Lilongwe, Balaka, Machinga, Mangochi, Zomba, Thyolo, Mulanje, Phalombe, Neno, Chikwawa and Nsanje were proven to have been contaminated.

Access to quality water was made worse when the floods led to the displacement of people. This also led to disrupted access to sanitation and hygiene.

Duncan Chambamba is the CEO for Southern Region Water Board.

He says the board has yet to source at least K250 billion to enable it install water supply systems which are climate-change-resilient after the previous ones got damaged by Cyclone Freddy.

However, he has no knowledge of the findings that the board distributed contaminated water to people in Phalombe. For him, the board provides quality water in line with Malawi Bureau of Standards and World Health Organization standards. Of course, an independent company is now doing new tests.

“The board always tries as much as possible to supply portable water. We have technicians who ensure that our water is treated within the standards of the World Health Organization and Malawi Bureau of Standards. So, for the case in point, I am not sure since that was a long time ago but as we are speaking now, we have a water treatment process that we are following as a board mandated to supply portable water to our customers,” he insists.

He adds, “We keep on treating our water, applying relevant chemicals to ensure that water supplied to our customers is of good quality. Now, we are engaging independent people to test the water in addition to what we do. I want to assure you that as a waterboard we are providing potable water, clean water to our customers.”

In response to the findings, Lilongwe Water Board is implementing a Cholera Response Strategy aimed at increasing safe-water supply and improved sanitary and hygiene practices.

Spokesperson for the board, Chisomo Chibwana says in its contribution to fighting waterborne diseases, Lilongwe Water Board has provided free water consumption to approximately 180, 000 individuals through 101 kiosks in key areas such as Area 36 and Mgona and facilitated free connection to at least 15, 500 residents with quality water supply system.

“We saw that it was critical for us to improve access to potable water especially in cholera hotspots in our supply area. We also looked at the issue of enhancing sanitation through the provision of improved facilities; that is also in hotspot areas. We looked at the aspect of raising awareness on the use of portable water because we had realized that in some instances some residents of the city were using water from unprotected sources,” explains Chibwana

In a quest to improve water quality, Malawi established the National Water Resources Authority.

The idea was to regulate and manage water sources for sustainable, effective and efficient use by all sectors in order to accelerate socio-economic growth and development of the country.

The Water Resources Act of 2013 objects to the drilling of boreholes in areas where water boards operate.

But what is the status of water supply in Malawi?

National Water Resources Authority’s spokesperson Masozi Kasambara says as a measure to mitigate the spread of waterborne diseases, the authority ordered borehole owners in Zomba to declare ownership and obtain licenses of such facilities or risk closure. Over 1,300 did and 593 were found to be unfit.

“The tendency of illegal borehole drilling in various parts of the country continues to be on the increase and this is why the National Water Resources Authority was brought to the fore to ensure that all issues to do with illegalities surrounding the water sector are ably dealt with.

“The Water Resources Act gives exemptions where boreholes can be allowed to be drilled. For example, we may have situations where an area is gazetted under waterboard that it should be waterboard supplying but there could be one reason or the other that would make the waterboard unable to persistently supply water. In such a scenario, the question should be where will people get water as water is life. It is in circumstances like these where the National Water Resources Authority comes in,” he says.

The Water and Environmental Sanitation Network observes that most organizations working in the water, sanitation and hygiene sector pay insignificant attention to water quality when providing it to the people.

WESNET Executive Director Willies Mwandira says in Chikwawa, for example, people use salty water which is not safe for human consumption but infrastructure is set up to provide people with quality water.

“We want to ensure that we engage the service authority which is the government through the Ministry of Water and Sanitation to ensure that we put in place a mechanism of monitoring the quality of water across the country and there is a way of monitoring the quality of water people drink. It will require a lot of investment. We are looking at an investment of about K386 billion every year,” he says.

In 2021, the World Health Organization reported that over two billion people lived in water stressed countries. They predicted this would worsen due to climate change and population growth.

In 2022, WHO found that at least 1.8 billion people around the globe used contaminated drinking water sources which posed a great risk for diarrheal, acute respiratory infections and other tropical diseases.

The UN General Assembly recognized access to sufficient, continuous and affordable water and sanitation as a human right. Sustainable Development Goal 6 Target 6.3 states that by 2030, countries should improve water quality and increasingly recycle and reuse water safely.

This is far from attainable in Malawi.

Joylet Gentleman has to travel a long distance to a stream to draw water - unprotected water.

Now the situation is worse as lately people dumped a dead dog along the stream so she goes to a nearby village well.

“Here, we use water from a stream. At the moment, there is a dead dog in the water and now we are walking a long distance to draw water from another village. We are waiting for the water to get clean so that we can start using it again.”

At the 21st African Water Association International Congress and Exhibition-7th International Fecal Sludge Management Conference last year, the Director of Water Quality Laboratory of Sodeci in Cote d’Ivoire Professor Aw Sadat told journalists that access to quality water remains a challenge in most African countries, with Malawi being the worst-case scenario.

There is a duty for Malawi to develop systems for resilient and quality of water supply. That, as the experts say, will be the start to ending the never-ceasing outbreaks of waterborne diseases in the country.


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Last modified on Monday, 25/03/2024

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