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MALAWI: Hospitals Struggle Amid Water Shortage

Charles Mpaka

BLANTYRE, Aug 17 2011 (IPS) - Two battered plastic chairs bar entry to the toilets at the Bangwe Township Clinic in Blantyre. The toilets are not working because there is no running water – yet again. And if patients want to use the facilities they will have to run to the next- door primary school, which has pit latrines.

Women return from fetching water after the supply in their homes was cut off during the water rationing.  Credit: Charles Mpaka/IPS

Women return from fetching water after the supply in their homes was cut off during the water rationing. Credit: Charles Mpaka/IPS

“It’s not a new thing here,” says a nurse, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “It’s been like this for two weeks now. We often don’t have running water, especially during the dry season. We have two toilets, so at times (like this) we close them.”

But the clinic, which sees an average of 100 patients daily, needs water for its patients and the nurse draws two buckets a day from the borehole at a nearby mosque.

“We just get a couple of buckets from there so that our patients can have some water to drink or use to take (their) medication. We are affected by this water shortage. My job is not to go looking for water, but to examine and prescribe medicine for my patients,” says the nurse at the clinic.

The rainy season ended in March in Malawi. It is currently the dry season but this year there are much lower water volumes. It has led the state-run Blantyre Water Board to begin rationing water. The board admits, however, that the current demand for water in the city far exceeds the capacity to supply it.

Dogged by persistent power outages at its main water intake, which is over 50 kilometres away from Blantyre, and a collapsing system that has not been rehabilitated in over 40 years, the board is struggling to meet increasing water demands.

The population in Blantyre has grown from 113,000 in 1966 to 670,000 in 2008, according to the National Statistical Office.

However, there is a five million dollar project currently underway to improve the southern African country’s water infrastructure by 2013.

The Blantyre Water Board says the project will improve the water supply from 78,000 cubic metres per day to 96,000 cubic metres per day. This would enable the board to end the perennial water shortages and reach over one million people.

Meanwhile, in townships across the city the sight of residents queuing for water at the few functioning water points is a common sight. Some even use city streams for washing clothes or bathing.

Hospitals too are not spared. The Blantyre Adventist Hospital, one of Malawi’s major private hospitals, did not have water for a week.

Chief executive officer for the hospital, Kirby Kasinja, told local media that the water shortage has been a persistent problem at the facility. There have been brief lapses in the water supply during the past few months, but the water stopped completely last week, crippling the hospital’s operations.

“We have dirty linen from the theatre that are soiled and bloodied and we need to wash them. (But) how can we wash them when we are regularly without water? Even patients are supposed to be clean as a matter of hygiene, but there is no water for (bathing) as well,” he said.

Desperate to keep things running in its theatres, maternity wards and other critical departments, the hospital spends about 400 dollars daily to hire private water tankers to meet some of its water needs. But Kasinja says this expense is too costly for the hospital.

Spokesperson for the Blantyre Water Board, Innocent Mbvundula, denies that hospitals have been forced to ration. They are priority facilities, he says, and their water supply will not be cut.

“We do not cut (the water supply to) hospitals because they are critical facilities,” he says, attributing some of the water shortages experienced by hospitals to technical problems. He assured IPS that the board investigates and solves these supply issues as soon as they are altered to them.

Maziko Matemba, director of the Health and Rights Education Programme, a health civil society organisation, says water shortages in the city have far-reaching implications on the health of residents and patients in hospitals.

He says patients need water, especially for personal hygiene. “(To implement) disease prevention (you) need water at all the times because an unhygienic environment is a breeding ground for many infectious diseases. … These water shortages will create a health crisis,” Matemba says.

He urges the Blantyre Water Board to prioritise water supply to hospitals and to carry out orientation programmes on the proper utilisation of water in hospitals, homes and public places to ease the pressure on the overstretched water distribution network.

Until then, residents and essential facilities in the city will have to find alternative sources.

As for the Bangwe Township Clinic, there isn’t much staff there can do. When the borehole at the mosque breaks down, the clinic goes without water.

“It’s a bit tolerable for us only because we are an outpatient hospital. But the problem is persistent. You never know, one day we may have to start asking patients to bring water in bottles so they can drink while they wait for medical attention,” says the nurse.

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