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Communities fight for potable water access

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Though 80 percent of Malawi’s population is said to access improved drinking water, many more are still lacking.

And only six percent of the country’s population, according to United States Agency for International Development (Usaid), has access to improved sanitation facility.

Much as improper storage of drinking water usually leads to water borne diseases like cholera, for people of Maya Village in Traditional Authority Mbenje in Nsanje, being denied access to potable water is at the centre of water-borne diseases in the area.

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And one of the culprits is their own traditional leader.

In June last year, Village head Maya borrowed K4,000 from Village Water Point Committee for personal errands. Till today, he has not paid back the money, according to Village Water Point Committee Secretary, Phyllis Jimu.

This, Jimu says, has affected the group’s periodic maintenance of one of their boreholes.

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“The water point committee mobilised people to contribute K 200 as borehole fund. The money amounted to K17, 600. Ironically the village head maneuvered and got part of it promising to pay back which he never did.

“He took the money on the pretext that is was meant for another borehole that was going to be sunk by his church in the village. We have been reminding him of his promise. He now reached a point of threatening us. This community will not relent on getting back what belongs to us,” says Jimu.

It is a requirement under the country’s water management systems that when a new borehole is drilled a water point committee should be set up and trained to look into issues of maintenance and sanitation, among others.

The concerns of Jimu and communities in Maya village are shared across the district.

Acting Traditional Authoirty Chimombo says his subjects have over and over again expressed frustration at being denied water rights by the district council.

He says many of his subjects access water from unprotected. This, he says, has aggravated waterborne diseases like cholera.

“The District Water Department promised sometime back to sink seven boreholes in my area but to date people are still drinking from unprotected sources,” he says.

The council, according to Chimombo, has on numerous occasions been reminded of the dangers of violating people’s rights but all that has fallen on deaf ear.

“Our council is good at documenting things and not implementing them. The council is violating people’s right which is not supposed to be the case,” says Chimombo.

The situation in Nsanje reflects badly on how the country is likely to fair in the recently-adopted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Goal number six calls on countries to sustainably ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation.

Nsanje District Water Officer, Grant Nyale, admits the challenges communities are facing in the district in relation to water.

He however blames the situation on lack of capacity on the part of water point committee members.

“Nsanje has over 1040 water point committees of which almost half of them have never been trained on borehole management, a job that also depends on the borehole fund,” he says.

Climate Change Programme Officer at Centre for Environmental Policy and Advocacy (Cepa), Mtisunge Mngoli, says access to water is a human rights and public health matter.

With funding from the Climate Justice Project, a consortium of four organisations namely Cepa, Churches Action in Relief and Development (Card), Bluezone and Christian Aid, Cepa is implementing an improved community resilience programme in Chimombo and Mbenje areas.

The programme seeks to increase access to safe and potable water supply and food security to 1,500 households.

“We would like to see the communities demand their rights from duty bearers. In this case, chiefs are interfering with water committees and are infringing on people’s rights.

“We look forward to facilitating dialogue between traditional leaders and the communities so that this is resolved,” says Mngoli.

Card’s Assistant Projects Officer Charles Msowoya says the project has increased the level of awareness among leaders on matters of access and utilisation of water resources

Mbenje believes that with communities empowered to demand their rights, duty bearers like local leaders will keep their actions in check.

“Following the complaints from the communities, we will go around to resolve all the matters and make sure local leaders involved pay back the money.

“Water is a precious but scarce commodity; hence the provision of water and sanitation must at all times be a priority. It is the duty of duty bearers to ensure people are being given their right to water,” he says.

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