Across a tarred road in Nandolo Village, Traditional Authority Kaduya in Phalombe, an elderly woman wobbles to a dirty well to draw water for household chores.
The water hole, which she shares with livestock, has been her source of the precious commodity for years after taps seemed to have forever run dry.
“We have no other source of water nearby. So the dirty well is the most convenient spot,” says Marina Madengu, 68.
Phalombe is one of Malawi’s most water – stressed districts despite that investments meant to bring the precious commodity back into household and communal taps have been announced before.
For instance, while locals in Nandolo Village are struggling to access clean and potable water, a K2.7 billion project that should have addressed the problem once and for all has stalled with no prospect of when it will rise again.
The project, through which the government intended to construct, rehabilitate and expand the gravity-fed piped water system at Phalombe major and Sombani water tanks, excited residents of the western border district, who are now concerned about contracting waterborne diseases as the rainy season sets off.
“The dirty well we rely on becomes dirtier with the rainy season as it is located at the foot of a hill and receives all kind of waste dumped or generated elsewhere.
“My granddaughter once suffered from cholera and I believe she contracted it after drinking contaminated water. We do not always treat it either because we don’t have money for buying chemicals or because of time constraints in terms of boiling it,” Madengu says.
She recalls that in previous years, organisations rushed to her village and others in Phalombe to supply them with chemicals for treating water but phased out their projects.
So, the elderly woman and her family stick to the dirty water well which is also facing pressure due to the increase in the number of livestock and people who trek there to get the prized murky liquid.
“With the rainy season starting, we will be shifting to other dirty wells nearby. Rainwater accumulates in several spots in our village. Families with iron-sheet-roofed houses, at least, manage to trap rainwater and use it for household purposes. It is cleaner,” Madengu says.
A few yards from her house is the home of 54-year-old Doreen Vincent, whose water problems are not any different.
While she sometimes has the luxury of trapping rainwater that falls on the iron-sheets roof of her small house, Vincent says, lengthy periods of dry days which are now common in Phalombe mean she returns to the dirtier wells.
“It is a big crisis but no one seems to care. When authorities told us that we would soon have clean and potable water in our area, we were all very happy. It is now three years since we first heard about this.
“Then early this year, we were told again that water was on its way. It seems we are waiting for something that will never happen in our lifetime,” Vincent complains.
When he toured the project earlier this year, then Minister of Irrigation and Water Development Charles Mchacha admitted that residents of Phalombe were eagerly waiting for the project to complete.
“Therefore, if given this responsibility, we have to take it seriously and make sure we deliver high-quality products for them,” Mchacha said.
Today, there is nothing that the people are getting from the project apparently because substandard materials were used resulting in the collapse of a water tank and fears that another tank would burst once huge gushes of water began flowing through it.
Two years ago, community members around the project nearly chased from their area consultants and contractors of the project apparently because they were doing a bad job on the assignment.
Among other grounds, they accused two of delaying progress on the A f r ican Development Bank-funded project.
But for Madengu, Vincent and thousands other residents of Phalombe, the cry for clean and potable water, which is becoming louder each passing day, should not continue being ignored.
“They must tell us why we still don’t have the water when they told us clearly that money had been found and everything would be alright,” Madengu charges.
She prays that a cut-off point, where she will no longer be moving from one dirty well to another, will soon arrive for her family of four.
Alick Ponje is a features writer at The Times Group. He graduated from the University of Malawi with a bachelor’s degree in education, majoring in literature in English. He believes that quality reporting is critical in bringing positive change in communities. Alick is the Southern Africa Development Community journalist of the year (2020) in the television category. Follow him on Twitter @aponje