Six years ago, Luchenza was declared a municipality and residents were over the moon hoping that the new status would fast track introduction and improvement of social and economic services to the rural town.
Located on the Limbe-Thyolo-Muloza road, along the Limbe-Nsanje Railway Line and in the catchment area of the country’s tea production capital, Luchenza is one of the most important rural towns poised for growth in Malawi.
This is the marketplace for fish, agricultural produce, textile and groceries traders from different directions of the country. It is also home for notable firms such as Admarc, freight agencies, schools, financial services institutions and tourism facilities.
It, effectively, is considerably self-sufficient –a sufficiency that was expected to reach full bloom following the declaration of the town as a municipality in 2010.
Yet today, Luchenza seems to be retreating on this progressive course on account of no development in critical areas such as potable water.
Maria Galasiyamu of Chiromo Village which is within the municipality bears testimony to how lack of access to clean water and adequate sanitation have been a life-threatening issue for a long time in the town.
“Most of the inhabitants are at risk of diseases such as diarrhoea and cholera,” she says, adding that the situation has been degenerating over the years Luchenza has been a municipality.
Mayor for the council Harold Kaliwo says the water system that is currently in place was designed for an estimated population of less than 5 000 inhabitants.
“Now the population has grown to over 35,000 and the system cannot supply water to all those inhabitants,” he says.
Councillor for the area Brighton Baluwa says the upgrading of Luchenza into a municipality was meant to improve people’s lives through the provision of safe and clean water, better health and education services, among others.
But he says delivery of social services remains pathetic in part due to the ineffectiveness of local government structures.
He says in particular, the water access challenges in the town are inhibiting progress in others areas. For example, children are staying out of school due to sanitation problems in their institutions.
Village head Chiromo says despite being a municipality, the majority of his subjects still live slum-life and they are unemployed. And he admits the water situation has degenerated.
“We expected authorities to immediately bring alternative sources of water [after the declaration of municipality status]. In other villages taps were installed but they do not supply water,” he says.
Chiromo says to access clean water, many people travel five kilometres to a borehole situated in Traditional Authority Nanseta’s area. But this borehole is not reliable.
“When the water table goes down, queues become long and people start flocking to nearby rivers in search for water,” says Chiromo.
The area has a favourable topography that could make drilling technologies viable.
But the upgrading of the town council into a municipality brought in new regulations. Drilling of boreholes is unlawful and the only allowed provider of water, Southern Region Water Board, is yet to supply many parts of the town.
Authorities argue that with the area operating as a municipality and the population growing yearly, a number of activities would be taking place, which would make underground water unsuitable for human consumption.
A public health expert, Pilo Mponda, says onsite wastewater disposal systems used by homes and offices at the town are improperly designed, located and constructed.
He says its sewer system can leak bacteria, viruses and other contaminants into the groundwater causing serious health problems, hence the preference for tap water.
Monitoring and Evaluation Officer for the council, John Maneya, says it is hazardous for residents to consume ground water. He says most functioning boreholes pump out saline water, a situation he attributes to accumulation of human waste products under the ground.
“The increasing number of pit latrines also means contamination of groundwater,” says Maneya.
Yet, experts agree that potable water can catalyse a broad range of development outcomes as it supports the realisation of other rights such as attainment of education, health, sanitation and food.
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) says on its website that children under the age of five account for almost 90 percent of all the deaths that occur from sanitation-related diarrhoea, amounting to at least 5000 dying each day.
A UNDP report of 2015 projects that by 2050, at least one in four people are likely to be affected by recurring water shortages around the world.
It says ensuring universal access to safe and affordable drinking water for all by 2030 requires government to invest in adequate infrastructure, provide sanitation facilities and encourage hygiene at every level.
“Protecting and restoring water-related ecosystems such as forests, mountains, wetlands and rivers is essential if we are to mitigate water scarcity.
“More international cooperation is also needed to encourage water efficiency and support treatment technologies in developing countries,” reads part of the report.
Globally, an estimated 748 million people lack access to an improved source of drinking water and 2.5 billion people live without basic sanitation facilities, statistics show.
Luchenza’s contribution to that bleak picture isn’t hard to see. The council says it is looking into the problem.
Kaliwo says the council has plans to upgrade the water system, in collaboration with Southern Region Water Board.
He also says in an effort to improve its water sanitation, health system, the council has partnered with the National Democratic Institute through Pan African Civic Educators Network to ensure that there’s an effective management of health, education, sanitation and water system.
Kaliwo says the organisations provide consistent support, guidance and oversight on how effective the systems can deliver services.
But perhaps, Luchenza needs to attain autonomy in the first place.
In March this year, a meeting of officials from the council, Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development and NGOs working in political governance issues just fell short of saying that the declaration of Luchenza as a municipality was an error of judgment on the part of the government.
Participants to the meeting said the council did not have proper administrative structures. Yet as a municipality, it was by law supposed to be autonomous in providing education, health, forestry, natural resources and other community services.
The autonomy has been hard to come by. Since its declaration as a municipality, Luchenza has been implementing programmes in the education and health sectors after getting guidance or approval from Thyolo or Mulanje district councils.
Most of the disputes and plans in the education and health sectors are forwarded to Thyolo and Mulanje districts for approval and implementation.
In effect, without this independence, the quest of residents for cleanwater will remain a matter under the bridge, leaving the town perpetually on hard ground.
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