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MALAWI: Questions Over Water Stats

Claire Ngozo

LILONGWE, Sep 16 2009 (IPS) - A set of new research data contests the Malawian government’s claims that nearly all of the country’s urban citizens have access to clean water and sanitation.

The challenge of providing ready It's well documented that women and girls in rural Malawi spend long hours fetching water; new research suggests the situation is replicated in the city. Credit:  IRIN

The challenge of providing ready It's well documented that women and girls in rural Malawi spend long hours fetching water; new research suggests the situation is replicated in the city. Credit: IRIN

Misleading official statistics are hiding the scale of the problem, environmental experts say: the new study by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) shows more than half of urban Malawians do not have access to running water.

While it is common to see women and girls balancing buckets of water on their heads in the rural communities of Malawi, where people have to collect water from rivers, communal wells and boreholes, the practice has now extended to the country’s main cities of Lilongwe, Blantyre and Mzuzu.

According to the new study by the IIED, an independent research organisation focusing on sustainable development, these are the signs that show that Malawi is failing to meet the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) for water and sanitation in its urban areas, which calls to halve the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation by 2015.

Data released by Malawi’s government to show progress in urban water supply are ambiguous and create a false impression of the situation, IIED researchers say.

The study, which was sponsored by the Scottish government, one of Malawi’s key foreign donors, indicates that water and sanitation remain woefully inadequate in the country’s informal settlements that are home to about 60 percent of the urban population, despite government claims that nearly all urban citizens have access to safe water and sanitation.

The Malawi government’s 2007 Malawi MDG Report, alleges that access to water in urban areas has improved significantly, from 47 percent in 1992 to 75 percent in 2006. 

Residents of Malawi’s capital Lilongwe confirm that government statistics are unlikely to be correct. Martha Kaliwo, 54, a resident of Ntandile, a township outside of Lilongwe, told IPS that access to water and sanitation has not improved in recent years.

“Taps run dry frequently, forcing residents to roam the city streets in search of water. Actually, we get surprised if we have running water for three days in a row. We are resorting to fetching water from unsafe water sources, and most times we have to walk long distances searching for safe water,” she explained.

Long queues

Kaliwo says many women, who are traditionally responsible for collecting water, tend to be late for work, if they have jobs, because they have to spend many hours of the early morning to scout for water to drink, wash and cook. “We are tired after walking around in search of water, and our productivity levels are very low,” lamented Kaliwo.

She notes that few households have toilets of their own, and the fact that many families share one facility means that sanitation standards are low. “There are clusters of up eight houses which use one pit latrine in most compounds around the township where I live,” said Kaliwo.

The IIED research shows that 42 percent of urban households dispose of their waste in pits dug within their plots, while 21 percent throw waste out on the road or into a river, and only nine percent of waste is removed to community or city waste sites. Municipalities fail to provide waste skips, and when they do, many informal settlements are inaccessible to the lorries that are supposed to deliver and collect them.

In the nine urban settlements surveyed, only a quarter of households had individual water connections, the study further found. Half relied on water bought from water kiosks, while 13 percent bought water from neighbours who have running water. The report also indicates that water kiosks, or communal water points, are not always open for business – most open for three hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon, and remain closed overnight.

Boyd Kalumo, 52, a resident of densely populated township Ndirande, near Malawi’s commercial capital Blantyre, complains that there are usually long queues at the water kiosks in the few hours that they open and that women spend a lot of time waiting for their turn to draw water.

“We cannot access water if we need it at night, and we have to try to stock up. This is very inconvenient,” said Kalumo.

Erratic supply

He also says erratic water supply is forcing urban residents to fall back on unsafe water sources, like drawing water in buckets from swamps. Water toilets are becoming redundant for many. “Most households are now constructing pit latrines outside their houses because we can no longer depend on the flush toilets,” explained Kalumo.

Only 10 percent of Blantyre’s population and eight percent of Lilongwe’s live in homes connected to sewers, and in Mzuzu, there are no sewerage systems installed at all, IIED researchers noted.

The IIED findings stand in stark contrast to the statistics published by the government of Malawi, which claims the county has been making significant progress towards meeting the MDG for water and sanitation by 2015. “It is clear that the official statistics on provision for water do not use the same definition as specified in the MDG [document] – the proportion of the population with sustainable access to safe drinking water,” IIED researchers suggest.

The MDG document’s definition of sanitation is ambiguous, referring to the proportion of a population with access to ‘basic sanitation’. Malawi could be meeting the sanitation aspect of the goal in urban areas if the term ‘basic sanitation’ is interpreted as including very basic pit latrines shared by several households and often poorly maintained, according to IIED.

Despite its positive-looking, national statistics, the Malawi government seems to be aware of the need to improve the country’s water and sanitation provision. When presenting the 2009-2010 national budget in July, finance minister Ken Kandodo promised government will ensure that the national water boards, which are in charge of supplying the country’s cities with clean water, will be made more effective.

“We will ensure that there is an efficient and enhanced water supply in the country,” he told Parliament.

In May, principal secretary for water development, Andrina Mchiela, also pledged to improve water supply and sanitation: “We want 80 percent in every 100 people to have access to clean water and improved sanitation by 2013.”

It is yet to be seen if the water and sanitation problems will be resolved within three years as promised by government. For now, taps continue to run dry in Malawi’s cities.

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