By Francis Unyolo:
In the late ’90s, the springs of water atop Soche Hill cascading the slopes into the streams was for some people a precious sight that excited their wonder at the beauty of nature.
But Hermes Chimombo saw something different.
Standing on the top of mountain, and looking down at the tiny but growing township of Chilobwe, he found an idea to supply water to ease challenges in access to clean water.
Chilobwe is one of the locations in the commercial capital of Blantyre that used to be known for the problem of erratic water supply.
Stud Mzonde Mbewe, one of the assistants of Group Village Headman Chilobwe, says however that the water situation in the area is now improving.
“Water scarcity in Chilobwe is still a problem. However, we appreciate people who came up with the water system initiatives to tap water from Soche Hill. Because of the topographical feature of Chilobwe, it is very hard to have reliable water supply from Blantyre Water Board,” he said, indicating the impact of water supply initiatives such as Chimombo’s.
Chimombo, currently councillor for Naotcha Ward, said the water supply system idea started in 1999. At that time, only a few houses were connected to Blantyre Water Board system and even those connected were suffering from lack of reliable potable water supply due to low pressure.
He was then chairman of the Village Development Committee.
“Because of my post, I was able to engage with chiefs, religious leaders and local people,” he said.
One day, some people at Khalika areas in the township invited him to a meeting to discuss problems affecting them.
“They asked me to provide them a borehole to mitigate water problems in the area. I told them that it was difficult to dig a borehole, considering the fact that they were in hilly area,” he said.
He also shot down their proposal for wells as these water sources would be too far from households.
“So they asked me what I was going to do for them. I said I would bring them water from the hill through pipes. They laughed at me. They thought it was a joke,” he says.
Despite being short on financial resources, Chimombo painstakingly put together a system that tapped water from up Soche Hill down to the community.
One after another water points sprouted in the township courtesy of his system. Today, the system has grown such that it supplies water to many areas including Chilobwe centre, Naotcha, Khalika, Chilobwe market, Nkanamwano, Dongo, New Chilobwe, down to Chatha village.
Emulating Chimombo’s project, some people have come in to develop their own water supply systems from the top of Soche Hill. However, Chimombo is one of the two main suppliers of water from the hill.
“When the system reached the first water point, I invited people who are financially capable to come and join me in the distribution so that together we can cover a large area. My aim was to supply the water for free,” he says.
He went to some non-governmental organisations asking them to assist him with his project.
“No one was ready to help then. Because I had no money, some people approached me with an idea of extending the water pipes further down Khalika area, where people would be paying. This was a way of commercialising the system with a vision of improving it further,” he says.
To expand and maintain his system, he was taking money from his small scale welding business and borrowed from others.
“Lucky enough, I managed to cover a huge area. I set a small amount of money which people could afford to pay to access the water,” he says.
This was his way of ensuring that he had resources to maintain and expand the system.
However, due to demand as compared to his finances, he asked other people to join him in the project.
“So far, there are about 16 people who have water systems at Soche Hill,” he says.
The water is safe to drink as they treat it after learning from Blantyre Water Board.
The water suppliers also undertake activities to conserve their water sources up the mountain. These conservation methods include planting more trees and maintenance of dams which are sources of water they supply through kiosks and direct connection to people’s homes.
Thanks to his innovation, communities have had no dry taps throughout the year for close to four years now.
To ensure the long life of the systems, there is in place a Water and Environmental committee in the location which assists with conservation activities on the mountain.
Recently the committee built a house for a guard who will be providing security to the trees which people plant on the mountain.
And Chimombo is proud about the legacy he has made in the township.
“Even if I die today, people of Chilobwe and beyond would remember me through the water system initiative,” says Chimombo.