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MALAWI: Women Get Dirty to Stop Water Scarcity

Charles Mpaka

MACHINGA DISTRICT, Malawi, Jul 19 2011 (IPS) - Ethel James cannot wait for the gravity-fed water scheme in her area to be fixed so that she and the other women in her village will no longer have to wake up before dawn everyday to queue for water.

Community members are replacing the old pipes of the gravity-fed water scheme with new and larger ones.  Credit: Charles Mpaka/IPS

Community members are replacing the old pipes of the gravity-fed water scheme with new and larger ones. Credit: Charles Mpaka/IPS

She is part of the team of local villagers repairing the existing water system, which consists of a pipeline connected to a reservoir. At various points in the village are taps connected to the pipeline, but there is no running water just yet.

The water supply system fell to disrepair in the mid-1990s after government could no longer maintain it.

With the assistance of Water Aid Malawi, an international charity that assists people in accessing safe drinking water and sanitation, the community has taken over ownership of the scheme that covers Kwilasha village in Machinga District, southern Malawi and 13 surrounding villages.

People have been organised into clubs, with women assuming leading roles. Women are also involved in the laying of pipes and the digging of trenches. Community members are replacing old pipes with new and larger ones and expanding the network to reach more people.

Every morning before James begins work on the repairs, she rises at 4am and walks an hour to the only functioning borehole in the neighbouring village. She returns home with just a bucket of water, which her five children use to get ready for school.

The nearest alternative source of water is a river just 10 minutes away, but at this time of the year it is dry. But even during the rainy season it is a river that James avoids because there is a possibility of encountering crocodiles here. They swim up from Malawi’s main Shire River, which is linked to this tributary.

“So we just dig wells in the village, but that is also a problem because cholera becomes rampant since the water is unsafe. Now that it is the dry season, the wells no longer have water, so we rely on the borehole,” says James. Until the mid-1990s, access to running water was not a problem in the district as it had 10 functional water schemes, which government constructed in 1980.

However, all the schemes collapsed in 1994 when government changed the ownership policy and wanted the communities to manage the schemes. Many villagers did not have the skills to repair the facilities and were unable to raise money to buy spare parts. So the schemes collapsed.

“Government heaped the responsibility of running the schemes in the laps of people who were ignorant on how to go about managing them,” says villager Ndojime Zakaria who dug trenches for the scheme in 1980.

The government also decided to move away from building and maintaining gravity-fed water schemes to focus on drilling boreholes as a means of providing water.

However, water sector analysts in Malawi have faulted boreholes sunk in the decade after 1994. They say the intervention was often not based on hydrological expertise, but on the influence of politicians seeking patronage. Many were also accused of giving business to drilling companies in which they had interests. This resulted in an inequitable distribution of water points and the malfunctioning of most facilities.

The community suffered on both fronts: their gravity-fed scheme had collapsed and the borehole system had largely failed. This forced women to fetch water from unsafe sources or crocodile-infested rivers in the district.

“Without the scheme, the alternative water sources are either distant or dangerous because most rivers here pour into the main Shire River, which is home to thousands of crocodiles. Sometimes, these crocodiles follow the smaller rivers posing such a danger to women who go there to get water,” says Steve Meja, the district water officer for Machinga.

But now Water Aid Malawi and the Machinga district council have since trained the community in leadership, project management, finance raising, catchment area conservation and sanitation. It is expected that once the repair to this water system is completed, it will reach Kwilasha village and 13 other surrounding villages. Its reach will spread to about 45,000 people, which is three times more than it used to serve in the 1990s.

James says that repairing the water system will make a difference to the lives of the women in her village. “Women suffer most when there is a water shortage. Now we’re learning every skill so that we (can) maintain the scheme ourselves and ensure a reliable water supply. Our work does not stop at digging trenches; we also join men in laying pipes and fixing the facilities,” says James.

Monalisa Nkhonjera, the programme officer responsible for communication at Water Aid Malawi, says the involvement of women in “rough and dirty” jobs, such as fixing pipes, enables them to rely on themselves to maintain the scheme.

The scheme has started functioning in some villages and each household contributes 13 cents a month for buying accessories and constructing new water points. The community has been organised into a water user association. They have a bank account where some of the money is saved as capital for when Water Aid Malawi hands over the facilities to the people.

In the sections where water is running, women are also taking the lead in promoting sanitation and hygiene. Through volunteer sanitation committees, the women visit households to discuss proper water storage, the need to wash one’s hands after using the toilet, and how to manage water points.

James thinks the scheme will not collapse again, mostly because women are no longer spectators in the project. She says she now knows how to repair a tap and where to buy spare parts for the system.

“Having suffered the worst since the collapse of the scheme, we are doing all we can to learn everything so that we are able to maintain it ourselves even when the men are not there. An efficient water supply will help us look after our families well,” she says.

Water Aid Malawi has already assisted with the rehabilitation of another water scheme in the district. Government is set to revive the rest of the schemes with an African Development Bank loan using the same approach of community ownership.

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