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WATER: Miracle Man Eases Village’s Water Woes

Charles Mpaka

BLANTYRE, Malawi, Dec 20 2010 (IPS) - Hermes Chimombo, a welder in his 50s, is a revered man in the impoverished Naotcha Township. Armed with rudimentary tools and a passion to ease people’s suffering, he has tapped a spring in the mountain above the slum to provide water for its 25,000 residents.

People Collecting Water at One of Kiosks Credit: Charles Mpaka

People Collecting Water at One of Kiosks Credit: Charles Mpaka

Go back to 1998. On any given night, groups of women – venturing out in the darkness to avoid long queues during the day – could be found picking their way gingerly along a pathway down Soche Mountain, buckets of water on their heads, hair standing on end in fear of being assaulted by bandits that hid in the mountain and the hyenas reported to be straying from the bordering rural Chikwawa district.

“That was our nightmare,” says Sphiwe Adams, a resident of the township for over 20 years.

Naotcha’s only reliable source of water for drinking, cooking and domestic use was a spring high on the slopes of Soche Mountain, 600 metres from where the township’s edge meets the forest.

Naotcha property owner Eluby Mkwanda, recalls the response from new tenants in the three houses she owns near that boundary.

“Once you took the women up the mountain on their first day, you would see the anger on their faces. They would not talk to you and would scream at their husbands for bringing them here. So, many houses for rent remained mostly vacant.”

Naotcha lies about 20 kilometers from the state-run Blantyre Water Board’s nearest reservoir. The tank was constructed in 1964 to service the surrounding planned settlements of Kanjedza and Zingwangwa.

But Blantyre City’s population grew from about 113,000 in 1966 to 502,000 in 1998 – it’s presently estimated at 670,000. Surging urban migration, beginning in the early 1990s, is blamed for the city’s rapidly expanding slums.

In 40 years, the Board has not made any major investment to expand its network and ensure an uninterrupted water supply, its spokesperson told IPS.

In 1998, Chimombo was the chairperson of the community’s development committee. The area’s water woes quickly became his biggest concern.

In 1999, he approached Malawi Social Action Fund (MASAF), a World Bank- financed programme, for support. MASAF said it would consider the proposal, but only for its next round of projects, seven years later.

“I felt the responsibility to save the situation squarely falling on my shoulders,” Chibombo says. “I had led people into believing that we would have water. Now I didn’t want them to go on suffering for another seven years.”

That very week, using money from his small welding business, he purchased a stand pipe, an empty 100-litre drum, a bag of cement and domestic electrical conduit.

In a day’s work, he planted the drum in the mountain and rigged up an inlet to draw water from the spring into the drum. Then he plumbed 20 mm pipes from the bottom end of the drum and laid a line 700 metres down to a clearing on the edge of the township.

And the water flowed.

“There was a celebration that day. A miracle had happened. We did not believe him after the MASAF rejection but he went ahead using boys from his business,” recalls Mkwanda.

But this water point was still far from many residents of the sprawling township. Chimombo extended the main distribution line another 1.5 km to a second kiosk of two taps.

He was supplying the water free of charge. But his business suffered as he kept draining money from it to run the project. In 2000 residents decided to start paying “as a way of thanking him”. They are buying water at 4 cents per 20 litres, a cent higher than at the Board’s kiosks.

Chimombo’s scheme has expanded to 20 kiosks feeding from three fountains in the mountain. They supply water 24 hours a day.

His three ‘reservoirs’, now replaced with concrete cisterns, are cleaned inside once every month during which time the water is also treated with chlorine supplied by Blantyre City Council.

Refusing to own the project, Chimombo has handed over management of 16 kiosks to others. They maintain the network and monitor water sales in their zones. The money is theirs.

From the four kiosks under his charge, Chimombo collects about 14 dollars daily from each kiosk.

A local NGO, Sustainable Rural Growth and Development Initiative, has linked the group to the city council for access to training in management. It also supports the team in restoring the forest that has undergone degradation and expanding the network to a nearby low density location.

The organisation’s executive director Maynard Nyirenda says Chimombo’s invention illustrates how Malawi can exploit its vast water resources to eliminate water supply problems.

Ironically, his innovation is yet to reach his own rundown house. His wife walks some 20 minutes to one of the kiosks for water. Occasionally, they can access water from a Water Board tap in their yard.

But such days are very rare, Chibombo says. “I am satisfied that what began as a small thing has benefited thousands of people. There are still residents getting water from dirty streams but I think that will change as the project grows.”

For Sphiwe Adams, no resident can ever thank Chimombo enough. “Only God knows how best to thank him,” she says as she lifts her bucket at one of the kiosks.

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