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DEVELOPMENT-MALAWI: Water Utility Over-Stretched and Under-Maintained

Pilirani Semu-Banda

BLANTYRE, Mar 29 2008 (IPS) - Long known as a peaceful and quiet city, especially at night, Blantyre is steadily losing its reputation for tranquility. Residents now find themselves waking up to the hustle and bustle of women carrying metal and plastic buckets as they move around the city most nights and early mornings in search of water.

Water cuts that sometimes last up to three days have become a fact of life in Malawi’s commercial hub. And, the parastatal Blantyre Water Board (BWB) – the city’s sole water supplier – has warned that the cuts are likely to persist until 2013 as it replaces dilapidated water pumps with new equipment.

Businesses in Blantyre have resorted to installing on-site water tanks in an effort to cope with the erratic water supply.

The ‘2007 Malawi Millennium Development Goal Report’ indicates that the country is making good progress towards reaching the MDG target which calls for the reduction by half of the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water. (This target was set under goal seven, which deals with environmental sustainability. In all, eight MDGs were agreed on by global leaders at the U.N. Millennium Summit held in New York, in 2000; the deadline for the goals is 2015.)

The report states that access to water has improved significantly, from slightly over 47 percent in 1992 to 75 percent in 2006. But the state of affairs in Blantyre could overshadow this achievement.

During a recent media tour of BWB’s main intake facility at Walker’s Ferry on the Shire River in the southern district of Mwanza, superintendent Clive Bismarck explained that transformers have been breaking down at the point where the water is pumped from river to pipeline.

The transformers currently in use were installed in 1963: “The major problem we have is of old age. Our transformers have outlived their lifespan and we need to replace all the transformers to permanently address the water shortages.”

Bismarck added that the utility has begun repair operations and the installation of new and improved machinery that will ensure a more reliable water supply for Blantyre.

He said BWB’s ability to cope with demand is also being outpaced by the growth of Blantyre. The utility is able to pump 75,000 cubic metres of water daily against a demand for 95,000 cubic metres.

Malawi has emerged as one of the fastest urbanising countries in the world with an urban population growth rate of 6.3 percent compared to 0.5 percent in rural areas, according to the United Nations Centre for Human Settlement.

Persistent water shortages cause city residents to flush their toilets less frequently and to compromise on other basic elements of household hygiene such as dish washing. As a result, unpleasant odours emanate from houses and the risk of water-borne diseases has become a constant problem.

Cholera used to occur mainly in the rainy season when contaminated water entered the distribution system as a result of floods. Now, there are instances of the disease throughout the year, as poor hygiene is conducive to the spread of the Vibrio cholera bacterium.

If left untreated, cholera causes diarrhoea that can lead to kidney failure and death by dehydration within 24 hours. Since the beginning of this year at least eight people have died in a cholera outbreak in areas around Blantyre, which is located in southern Malawi. Up to 291 cases of cholera were reported within a three-week period in the region.

During a severe outbreak in 2002, more than a thousand people died of cholera in Malawi.

The water shortages in Blantyre led to the suspension of BWB Chief Executive Officer Owen Kankhulungo in November last year. A press statement signed by the utility’s board chairman, Tarsizius Nampota, said Kankhulungo had been suspended ahead of investigations into the causes of the water shortages.

Before his suspension, Kankhulungo had said that the shortages were a direct result of the water system being both inadequately maintained and over-utilised. He has since been quietly reinstated.

Kankhulungo told Finance Minister Goodall Gondwe during a pre-budget consultation earlier this month that BWB’s ability to upgrade the water system is compromised by the taxes it is obliged to pay.

He proposed that the minister waive tax on BWB’s imports of equipment for maintenance and expansion, noting that the utility cannot claim back thousands of dollars in duties paid on these goods.

However, the minister has been less than sympathetic to the BWB. Acknowledging that the current tax system does affect the utility, Gondwe said he had little respect for water boards because of their inefficiency.

“Over the past 40 years BWB has not repaired its equipment. BWB has become a nationwide problem. This year my budget will try to answer some of the problems that we have at BWB…but I will be very reluctant to give tax relief.”

Amidst this wrangling, many residents have now resorted to using rain water that has collected in ditches.

Those who have cars drive to BWB headquarters where they draw water from taps at the utility’s offices.

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