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Mzimba’s quest for potable water

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Water: What a simple name, easy on the mouth but difficult to get in real life.

And the problem gets compounded when the adjective potable is thrown into the mix.

The thing is, it is not just in Malawi where water— and all issues to do with water— is a big issue. Potable water is becoming a scarce resource; no wonder, millions of people across the globe spend an entire day, or even days on end in some cases, searching for it.

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While about 20 percent of Malawi’s total area is covered by water, a staggering 1.7 million people have no access to potable water while 10 million face challenges with sanitation.

This is according to Water Aid, an international organisation working in Malawi.

To get a picture of what this means, a visit to Mzimba District would be worth it. At Mzimba Boma, which has a population of over 42, 000 people, only 65 percent have access to potable water.

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According to Sarah Moyo, a resident of Kafoteka area at Mzimba Boma, water shortages are the order of the day.

Sarah walks about four hours to fetch potable water from Chanthomba Prison. She has lost hope.

“The taps we have at home occasionally give us water and mostly it is at night. In a month, for example, we draw the water not more than three times from our taps. We have to travel four hours to Chanthomba Prison to get piped water,” Sarah says.

It is a fact that women shoulder the burden when it comes to fetching potable water largely because they plan their daily chores around its availability.

Moyo is among the women who, on average, spend 12 hours to access water in Mzimba.

The unavailability, and occasional availability, of potable water is blamed on obsolete water supply systems. For example, the system in use at Mzimba Town has been in use for over 60 years.

Mzimba District Commissioner, Thomas Chirwa, admits that there is more pressure on the authorities to solve problems associated with water supply and availability in the district.

“Currently, water supply is very erratic at the Boma. You find that residents have water in the morning but, in the afternoon, they do not have water. This is because the water system is very old, such that it has become difficult to get water from the source to the Boma,” Chirwa says.

In Chanthomba Kaphiri, another outskirt neighbourhood at Mzimba Boma, the situation is critical, according to Chrissy Beza, a resident of the area.

Beza is afraid that, as summer hits hard, the problem may get worse.

She says people go several days without water. Most of the time, they have to wake up early in the morning to fetch water.

“The problem is that our taps run at night and, if you do not wake up early enough, you are in for it. This means you have to source water from other sources, which poses a hazard to our lives because it is hard to estimate how contaminated the water is,” Beza says.

Northern Region Water Board, which is responsible for water supply in the district, concedes that water supply infrastructure has not been upgraded for some time rendering it inadequate to meet the water demand of Mzimba Boma.

NRWB Water and Sanitation Engineer, Jackson Mtungila, says this has been the board’s concern for some time.

“Mzimba has faced the challenge of inadequate water supply for a long time. If you look at the town, only a few people have access [to potable water] out of a population of 42, 000. To make the situation worse, the water supply is also intermittent; they may have water supply at night but struggle to find water for bathing in the morning because the taps are dry,” Mtungira says.

Records show that there are some new structures in the district that are not connected to the water supply system.

For example, Catholic Secondary School is not connected to the water supply system because the water board cannot accommodate additional connections.

The construction of Mombera University will even add more pressure to the demand for water in the district.

At the rate the district is growing, Chirwa says the 1958 water supply system can hardly sustain the district’s ever increasing population; a population that has almost doubled.

“The water system that we are using was designed for a smaller population. It was designed for almost 20, 000 people at that time but, now, the number has doubled and it is really difficult to meet the demand,” Chirwa says.

However, to address the challenge, NRWB is implementing the Mzimba Integrated Urban Water and Sanitation Project which involves rehabilitation and expansion of the water treatment plant, transmission and distribution pipelines, water connections and construction of new service reservoirs and pumping stations.

The project is a ray of hope to desperate people such as Beza.

“We mostly do not sleep enough because we have to be alert and monitor the taps for water. We have women who have sustained injuries because of the various abuses they meet on the way to searching for water at night. If this project works out, it will be a huge relief to some of us,” Beza says.

NRWB spokesperson, Edward Nyirenda, says the number of people accessing potable water will improve when the project finishes.

“There will be uninterrupted water supply once the project is finalised because, as we speak, there are several areas that are not getting enough water. In addition, the reservoirs that we have constructed will store enough water that can last the whole day even in a scenario where there is a power outage,” Nyirenda says.

The Mzimba Integrated Urban Water and Sanitation Project will, among other things, extend potable water supply coverage to an additional 48,000 people, thereby serving 95 percent of the population at Mzimba Boma.

The hope is that the project may be completed within the 18 months time-frame.

More so because the project— financed by the Opec Fund for International Development, the African Development Bank (AfDB) and the Malawi Government— is expected to benefit about 75,000 households in the district.

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