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MALAWI: Local Management the Tonic for Water Woes

BLANTYRE, Aug 16 2010 (IPS) - Hop over a seep of filthy sludge behind a bathroom screened with ragged sacks, turn past the toilet with battered cardboard walls, crab between mud-brick shanties roofed with rusty metal… There: emerge into a small, neat yard where a dozen women and girls are filling plastic buckets from five water taps sticking out of concrete wall.

Water kiosk. Credit:  Charles Mpaka/IPS

Water kiosk. Credit: Charles Mpaka/IPS

“The [water users] association has made a big difference here,” says Fatima Misoya, a resident and water vendor at the kiosk. “We no longer get water from dirty streams.”

A bit more than half of the 38 kiosks in the shanty township of Nkolokoti-Kachere used to be run by the state-owned Blantyre Water Board. The others were managed by community, religious and political party leaders.

The water association’s administrator, Gloria Matchowa, says local leaders just pocketed the money residents paid for water, and rarely settled their bills with the Water Board. This resulted in frequent disconnections, sometimes lasting for years, she says.

The Water Board’s vendors mostly came from outside the community. They turned up late or not at all. Supply interruptions and other problems with the water mains went untended for long periods.

“The Board constructed the kiosks because many people here are poor. They cannot afford personal taps. But the kiosks were being too badly run to serve the intended purpose,” says Matchowa.

In January 2009, the kiosks owed Blantyre Water Board 11,000 dollars in unpaid bills. Over a third of them were in disrepair or had been disconnected, leaving many of the 90,000 people in the area struggling to access clean water.

Borrowing a successful model

But 350 kilometres away in the capital city, Lilongwe, the first water user association in that city was successfully serving 70,000 residents in the slum of Chinsapo.

Accounting for every drop

Every day, the sellers record meter readings before the start of sales and then again at the end. Through this, the association calculates the amount of water it buys, the bills it will pay and the money it may collect.

The association’s water sellers live close to the water points, keeping watch over the kiosks to avoid vandalism and ensure quick attention for customers, says Sydney Balakasi, who inspects 19 of the facilities.

"Sometimes we are able to sell water at night, especially at times when general water supply was interrupted during the day," he says.

As an inspector, Balakasi tours all the kiosks under his charge every morning, collecting the money from the previous day’s sales, checking the cash against the amount of water sold and noting any supply problems.

"So far so good," says Matchowa proudly.

Emulating that example, officials from Blantyre Water Board, Blantyre City Council and township residents formed the Nkolokoti-Kachere Water Users Association in February 2009.

The association is a formally-registered cooperative, with members of its board elected from the community to serve for two years. All the members come from the community, which promotes a sense of ownership of the facilities, Matchowa says.

The association took over operations, maintenance and revenue collection for the kiosks.

The Water Board handed over the kiosks on condition that the debt would be settled. Matchowa says they started with no other capital – not even spare parts to maintain or repair damaged facilities.

Rapid success

Where under previous management, rates for water varied between 4 and 6 cents for 20 litres, the association sells water for the equivalent of 2 cents for 20 litres. But within three months, the association cleared the debt and managed to repair all the broken kiosks.

“What we have learnt is that supplying water is big business,” says Matchowa. “With good management, we don’t have to sell at high rates to make good returns.”

The association takes in around $10,000 every month. About $2,000 goes to paying the Water Board for water supplied. Some of the money is spent on parts for repairs, gradually equipping their rented office – most recently they bought a computer – and some is set aside to construct more kiosks and eventually buy a vehicle for the association.

The association has 57 permanent employees and has built three new kiosks, with plans to construct two more this year.

WaterAid Malawi, which introduced the concept of a water users association in Malawi, says these cooperatives are based on a philosophy of cost recovery and even turning a profit while meeting the need for clean water supply.

Amos Chigwenembe is responsible for policy at WaterAid. He says kiosks may not be the ideal way to supply water, but if managed efficiently, they are useful in unplanned settlements.

Problems upstream

The association’s major foe is unreliable water supply by the Water Board. For a long time, the corporation has been under fire for failing to serve Blantyre’s 670,000 people.

The Board blames the failure on dilapidated infrastructure that needs an overhaul from intake to distribution point. Much of the equipment was laid in 1960s and now frequently succumbs to breakdowns.

No major investment has been made for over 40 years.

“The design capacity of our production system is far below today’s requirements,” says the Board’s acting public affairs and marketing manager Catherine Chilemba.

The water supplier is also struggling against losses due to illegal connections, leakages and frequent power outages by the electricity provider Escom. The Board claims its customers owe it 20 million dollars in unpaid bills.

In November 2009, the Malawian government launched a $5 million national water development programme with Blantyre Water Board as one of the targets. In the four-year programme, the Board will rehabilitate its network and increase production of clean water from the current 78,000 cubic metres per day to 96,000 m3 per day in 2013.

The Nkolokoti-Kachere Water Users Association is full of expectation. It cannot do anything about the bad housing in its area, it says, although it meets with residents regularly on sanitation and hygiene issues.

“But we can help ease the poverty through giving potable water at affordable price. Improvements at the Board will enable us supply water reliably and grow our business,” Matchowa says.

 
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