The search for drinking water in Kadamera Village in Nsanje District can be a choice between life and death.
Villagers here fetch the precious liquid from Ntcherabondo River, which is a powerful force of life—and, sometimes, death.
In a village without enough boreholes, the river has remained a reliable source of water despite that it is heavily infested with crocodiles.
The vicious reptiles have taken lives of locals in desperate search of water.
“It is scary fetching water from Ntcherabondo River. We have lost dear friends and loved ones to hungry crocodiles,” mother-of-four, Ethel Bengo, who is in her early 50s says.
She wakes up every night to fetch water from the lone borehole in her village.
Households from surrounding villages also rely on the facility.
“If you want to draw water without problems, you have to reach the borehole earlier than anyone else. Otherwise, it is possible to stay for more than five hours without accessing the water if you go late,” Bengo states.
The struggles at the borehole effectively push Bengo and other women to Ntcherabondo River.
No water, no school
Due to the scarcity of water in Bengo’s area, many children are skipping school as they find themselves unable to prepare food, wash uniforms and freshen up for classes.
“Our children can’t go to school without a bath and food. So they stay at home most of the days until water is found,” Lucy Richard, a resident of Kadamera Village, says.
The mother-of-four wakes up at 3am every day to fetch water and prepare her children for school. Sometimes, the children do not go to school at all.
Even after waking up that early, Richard usually gets back home four hours later and barely has enough time to prepare the children for classes.
“In most cases, you find the borehole is packed with people from the surrounding villages, with one person sometimes having up to 10 buckets to fill,” she explains.
One of the children affected by the water problem in the area is Shupikire Chijalo, a Form One learner at Phokera Community Day Secondary School.
“Most days, I fail to find the water at the borehole as it is packed by people jostling for the same. To avoid being punished for reporting late at school, I just stay at home,” Shupikire says.
Group Village Head Kaleso in Traditional Authority Mbenje in Nsanje acknowledges the water challenges and the impact they have on lives of women and children.
He reckons that the situation is well documented in the district and that local government authorities are aware of it.
“More than three villages depend on one borehole and it is not even safe to draw water from rivers,” the traditional leader says.
Kaleso’s area falls under Nsanje Lalanje Constituency which is represented by Gladys Ganda.
The legislator says she has initiated a piped water project covering three villages.
“Water challenges have indeed been there, but the good thing is that the Phokera Water Project, extending to Kalupsya, Kaleso and Khope, is now underway,” she reveals.
Until the piped water projects are completed, women in Kaleso and their neighbours continue to risk their lives after they turn to crocodile infested rivers.
In Neno District, some 191 Kilometres from Nsanje, water scarcity problems also persist and disturb children’s education.
Parts of the western border district, such as Lisungwi, perennially experience droughts resulting in a few boreholes there being overused and often out of service.
“Thus we turn to unprotected wells whose water is clearly unsafe,” says Annie Antoni, a villager from Mbemba in the district.
Water crisis in towns, too
Lack of clean water is not confined to rural areas. Some urban areas are experiencing their fair share of the challenge.
Loveness Makalani, a resident of Ntopwa Township in Blantyre, says people in her area rely on a shallow well.
“We cover a long distance to fetch water from the well which the owners drilled so they could get water for bathing and washing. That is the water we drink.
“We wake up early in the morning, crossing a tarmac road with vehicles cruising on it, putting our lives in danger, to fetch contaminated water which sometimes brings us diseases,” Makalani says.
In Malawi, the section of households with access to basic drinking water is about 67 percent, with 87 percent in urban areas and 63 percent in rural areas.
This means the country has a long way to achieve universal and equitable access to safe drinking water by the end of the decade as envisaged in Sustainable Development Goal Six.
During this year’s World Water Day on March, Minister of Forestry and Natural Resources, Nancy Tembo, admitted that the country is far from realising universal and equitable access to safe drinking water.
“Households, health facilities, schools, workplaces, farms, factories and ecosystems are struggling to survive and strive as water becomes a more and more scarce resource,” Tembo said.
For women and children in Nsanje, Neno, Blantyre and several other places, the exclusion is having huge impacts on their lives.
Their cries are rising to authorities who, in a way, appear to be turning their attention elsewhere.