When Lilongwe’s Area 18 residents cried foul over water supplied to them between the night of July 17 and 18 2017, Malawians thought that it was a one-off incident. Far from it as, as JARSON MALOWA, ISAAC SALIMA and RICHARD CHIROMBO write, more cases of water contamination are being reported across the country.
When news broke out on July 18 2017 that residents of Area 18 in Lilongwe had consumed water contaminated with sewer material, 15-year-old Luke was in form two at Salima Secondary School, where his bed was close to that of Fred, a classmate who was coming from Area 18.
“I laughed at him for days on end because I could not believe that people would drink contaminated water without smelling something fishy. I live to regret my decision,” he said in a telephone interview Wednesday.
His sudden change of heart is thanks to Central Region Water Board (CRWB)’s recent admission that it, through its Nkhotakota water supply distribution system, supplied contaminated water to some consumers around Nkhotakota Boma.
Luke, who stays in the lakeshore district, said he visited his uncle’s old-time friend who stays close to what used to be Nkhotakota’s old hospital between November 26 and December 2 last year, and suspects that he might have consumed water not fit for human consumption.
“Every time I drink water now, I feel like throwing up because some odd feelings just overcome me; I get a sense that I could be drinking something that could be harmful to my health,” he said.
What has stirred the hornet’s nest is that, on November 31 last year, some residents around the old hospital complained that they were supplied with contaminated water, a development that prompted CRWB officials to institute investigations into the matter.
And, in a press statement released on Wednesday, CRWB said preliminary results pointed to water contamination.
“The board would like to inform its customers that the laboratory results on the suspected water quality breach confirmed possible water contamination on samples that were collected by the customers while results of other samples collected by the board, after isolation of the suspected point, came out negative,” Zephelino Mitumba, CRWB spokesperson, said in the press release.
He said they suspect that the problem was due to a pipe that burst close to a pit latrine which an “unpatriotic” member of the community illegally constructed.
“The area was immediately isolated from [the] rest of the system and water samples were collected for detailed tests. The board will therefore proceed with litigation against those who tampered with our water works in the area,” he said.
One of the residents around the area, who asked not to be mentioned, said he was pleased with the findings.
“We are happy that the board has acted swiftly in releasing the report. We will have to meet first to decide on the way forward,” he said.
In December last year, some people in Zomba claimed that they had been drinking contaminated water for up to three days, faulting Southern Region Water Board (SRWB) for doing nothing about the problem.
One of the water users, who opted for anonymity, said he realised that the water was contaminated because it was “stinky and dirty”.
He threatened to sue the water supplier.
And, just like in the Nkhotakota case, SRWB moved fast to confirm the development, further apologising to customers for serving them with compromised water.
In a statement which the board released on December 14 2021, it indicated that the problem arose following a change of the water intake point.
“This has affected the board due to low water levels in Mulunguzi Dam and the routine water tank cleaning exercise, which is currently in progress. However, this is a temporary challenge which will soon clear out as the board is working at rectifying it,” the statement read.
SRWB management further assured all customers that the water was safe for consumption.
On December 23 last year, the National Statistical Office released results of findings that indicated that 93 percent of Malawians are drinking contaminated water.
The survey, which was done between 2019 and 2020, also revealed that 60 percent of water sources in the country were contaminated.
According to the projected population, Malawi has over 18 million people, of which 93 percent translates to over 17 million people.
The statistics are contained in the Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey report.
Commissioner for Statistics Mercy Kanyuka said, in the course of conducting the survey, water quality was scientifically tested, with indications that 93 percent of the water, including bottled water, was contaminated.
She explained that some of the water was being contaminated while in transit from water sources to homes. The sources included taps and boreholes.
“The results are not good… Between the water source and the drinking place, we are further contaminating the water by using utensils that are not clean.
“That is a big finding, which means policies have to be put in place to ensure that not only a water source is not contaminated, but the process of drawing water and keeping it in our buckets is clean,” Kanyuka explained.
Commenting on the findings, Health Minister Khumbize Kandodo Chponda said the findings were very important because they would drive the country’s agenda.
“We will base on something which has been done properly with proper research,” she said.
United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (Unicef) Representative Rudolf Schwenk said the importance of testing water quality could not be overemphasised.
He said without safe water children could not survive and that sanitation-related diseases remain among the leading causes of death in under-five children.
According to Unicef, it is estimated that nearly two billion people globally, use sources of drinking water that is already contaminated with human and animal waste.
The survey had a sample size of 26,882.
United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 6 promotes access to “clean water and sanitation for all”. It specifically says service providers have to “Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all”.
Recently, Assistant Registrar of the High Court Anthony Kapaswiche ordered the Malawi Housing Corporation (MHC) and Lilongwe City Council (LCC) to pay Area 18A residents K1.3 billion as compensation.
In 2017, the Lilongwe Water Board (LWB) supplied contaminated water to residents of Area 18A after the board’s supply pipes burst near a broken sewer system, allowing sewer water to go into the supply pipe.
Kapaswiche said each claimant would get a sum of K4.2 million.
Lawyer for the complainants Gift Katundu said he was happy that the case had been concluded.
He said 325 people are the ones that are supposed to benefit from the compensation.
The residents sued LWB, MHC, and Lilongwe City Council (LCC) for drinking contaminated water but, in August 2020, High Court Judge Kenyatta Nyirenda removed LWB from the case.