By Alick Ponje:
A traditional wedding ceremony is underway in Sontchaya Village, Traditional Authority Makwangwala in Ntcheu. Women, with water buckets balanced delicately on their heads, are trekking to the eventful place a few yards from the M1 Road.
At occasions like these, merrymaking seems cast in stone.
Nearby, a dry tap stands, its surrounding scorched by the October sun and strewn with desiccated cattle dung.
The clear skies, laced with just a few strips of clouds, mean the village, which is among hundreds—if not thousands—others that have been left without running water for over five months, will continue to look up to unprotected sources for the precious liquid.
And at the bridal ceremony, water drawn from a dirty well, is being shared among the revellers who believe they do not have a choice as the sun hits them hard.
But, among them, a voice emerges that charges that water is not life for rural communities that do not have safe water points.
“Drinking this water, you can’t say water if life. We’re living dangerously,” one of the wedding attendees says disconsolately.
More and more buckets of water drawn from a point that also redeems cattle, goats, pigs and, perhaps, wild animals, are coming to the ceremony.
And others are being taken to homes where the water is sometimes consumed without being treated first.
For instance, Mercy Kalulu of Sontchaya Village admits that the water crisis that has plagued her location and many others in the Central Region district sometimes compels them to drink what they draw from unsafe sources.
“We often treat it by boiling but that doesn’t always happen. You can’t wait for the water to boil and then get cold again before consuming it in this heat,” she says.
To many, the crisis is an unfamiliar one. For over three decades, Mpila Dam, about 15 kilometres away from Kalulu’s village, has been dependably supplying water to Ntcheu, Balaka, Machinga, Mangochi and Mwanza.
Through drastic weather patterns, the dam stood strong until five months or so ago when it finally succumbed to uphill human practices that have significantly silted it and debilitated a river that thundered down the hills to the west of the dam before filling it to overflow.
“We used to drink water from communal taps. Now, we hear the dam where the water was coming from has dried up. We are hopeless,” Kalulu complains.
What remains of the dam, which was reportedly constructed in 1985, is a small pool that might not be there beyond October if rains do not fall quickly around this place.
A larger part of it is now left with dry clay shattering in the sun. Below the dry dirt is slippery and sticking mud that captures livestock, even humans, without warning.
Cattle graze freely on the potions of the dried dam where vegetation is blossoming.
“It is the first time I’m hearing that the dam has dried. It’s a disaster. Our lives are in danger as we don’t have safe water,” Kalulu says pitifully.
Thousands of others, too, have seen or heard for the first time that Mpila Dam, which suitably lies at the base of a few hills, has dried up.
Looking tired and downhearted, Grivin Bwetse, a resident of Gomeza Village, where the dam is located, is worried about his family’s future.
His fears, however, seem absurd as his community has never had running tap. The dam used to supply water elsewhere.
“But after it overflowed, we could get water for irrigation. We could also get drinking water that escaped from the dam. It was a long-standing habit,” Bwetse says.
He walks around the dry dam, carefully stepping onto the sun-beaten clay, silently praying that nature should hear their cries.
Year in, year out, he has watched water rise and retrocede in this man-made body but he has never seen the dam drying to a point where it is practically inoperable.
“So, these are the natural disasters they talk about? Something has to be done quickly to revive the dam,” he submits passionately.
His explanation for the tragedy is trite—that rain patterns have been erratic and that dry spells have exacted a heavy toll on the water body.
But, when he turns his eyes to the western side of the dam, from where a river that once raged down the pebbly hills, is flowing feebly like a children’s play’s canal, he admits locals in his village have contributed extensively to the current state of Mpila Dam.
The hills were once filled with both exotic and indigenous vegetation, fortifying Mpila River and its tributaries.
“When we were cutting the trees from the hills, it didn’t look so dangerous,” Bwetse admits. “It’s bad that thousands of people are suffering because of such actions.”
He appreciates that, as the United Nations states, water connects every aspect of life such that access to clean and potable water can turn problems into potential, unlocking education, work opportunities and improved.
It is one key concept in the Sustainable Development Goals which Malawi together with other world states adopted in 2015 after the expiry of the Millennium Development Goals.
It is also prominently highlighted in the third version of the Malawi Growth and Development Strategy which the government launched this year.
But the road to Mpila Dam, from the M1 Road just before Ntcheu Town, is a testament of destruction which starkly goes against targets in these strategies.
Bushfires are all over while, in some villages, men are burning bricks using huge piles of wood which they obviously chopped from nearby hills which are now almost completely bare.
“Our assessment shows that the unrelenting destruction of the catchment area of Mpila River has resulted in the drying up of the dam,” Balaka District Council Environmental Officer, James Jambo, says.
The Eastern Region area is among the worst hit as its main town almost completely relies on water from Mpila Dam.
“The destruction of vegetation on the river’s catchment area also means soil easily finds its way into the dam, hence the enormous siltation,” Jambo adds.
Like many other sub-Saharan African countries, Malawi has also failed to make significant progress in water and sanitation due to other factors such as rapid population growth.
And in a country where women continue being disproportionately affected by water crises since they are mostly the ones responsible for fetching and using it in households, the drying up of Mpila Dam largely wears a female face.
But children, too, who are often brought to help their parents with fetching water become victims of natural disasters like the drying up of water bodies.
“Without safe water, many things don’t work. In hospitals and schools, running water is a must. Of course, Southern Region Water Board is bringing water bowsers almost daily for critical institutions like Balaka District Hospital,” Jambo states.
Kalulu also laments that the water challenges that her village faces also mean women, who are the most affected, are failing to engage in income-generating activities as they spend hours on end at water points.
She accepts the views of those who state that when women have access to safe water for their households, they easily engage in other activities and experience greater autonomy.
“The coming of the rainy season is not even better. The threat of waterborne diseases will be high,” she sums up the chronicle of her fears.
But even after trees are planted along Mpila River to conserve the water body that has been running since time immemorial, the results will not be immediate.
It will probably take at least five years for the disaster to be completely dealt with, thus, leaving people struggling to access water for more years to come.
Unsafe water sources will continue to be convenient alternatives, exposing households to health challenges in a country already struggling to meet the health requirements of its people.
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