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Potable water that eludes the poor of Lilongwe

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In Lilongwe, a peri-urban location gives a human face to disparities that exist when the rich and the poor seek to access water from safer sources, AUDREY KAPALAMULA writes.

Since she moved to Kaphiri area in Lilongwe several years ago, Mercy Ngowani has been struggling to access potable water for household use.

And she is bitter about that fact.

Every day, she finds herself queuing and fighting for the commodity which Malawi committed to ensuring is available to everyone by the end of this decade.

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The water she struggles to fetch is not even from a safely managed source—just a small scantly covered well which several surrounding households rely on.

“There is no development in this area. We get water from the well because there are no boreholes here. Lilongwe Water Board [LWB] is yet to supply us with water. Only those with money have access to it,” Ngowani laments.

When faced with desperate situations, Ngowani resorts to buying water from other people’s households at K100 for a two-litre bucket.

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In the location, those with money are able to have water connected to their houses while the poor remain being sidelined even when it comes to accessing communal water points.

“When we have some money, we buy the water for drinking. But then, even the water supply from the water board is not that reliable,” Ngowani complains.

The water crisis is affecting women and girls most as they are the ones who often undertake most household activities.

They sometimes have to wake up early to rush to the unprotected well because that is all they have and cannot wait for the supply to lower before they get their shares.

Gracious Matumika, 17, who also draws water from the same sources is worried that authorities seem not to care that within the capital city, there are households that continue to fail to access potable water.

He fears that in an event of a waterborne disease striking the area, it may easily spread to multitudes who do not have potable water.

“But we do not have a choice. This water poses health threats but we have nowhere to turn to,” he says as he approaches the well dug out in an open ground.

In 2018, Kaphiri was one of the locations in Lilongwe which were severely hit by cholera, a disease that flourishes in spots with poor sanitation systems.

The densely populated peri-urban community registered dozens of cases and at least two deaths out of the 13 in the city.

Authorities that time agreed that use of unsafe water from streams and open wells contributed to the outbreak that exposed inequalities between the rich and the poor in towns and cities.

Matumika prays no waterborne disease visits the area again before clean and potable water is available for households to use.

“Sometimes we get stomach upsets especially during the rainy season. We try our best to keep ourselves safe by treating the water but sometimes in the thick of things we consume it untreated,” he admits.

In the location, locals’ cry for a kiosk whose water they could be paying for has reportedly been ignored for a long time.

Now, they say they are giving up on accepting that their plight will ever be heard in a city where its main supplier of the precious commodity reaches about 87 percent of the population.

LWB Public Relations Manager Chisomo Chibwana states that while most of the city’s residents have access to potable water, there are a few pockets within the metropolis that do no access the board’s services.

“This is mainly due to the fact that these areas such as Chinsapo and Mtandire within Lilongwe City are not properly planned and it is sometimes difficult to get reticulation extensions.

“In addition, these are newly expanding townships and we are still in the process of extending our network,” Chibwana said Thursday.

She added that the utility institution has been putting in place measures to ensure that water is being accessed by more residents within its catchment area.

Chibwana cited the current rehabilitation of LWB’s network and expanding its reach as one of the measures put in place for more people to access the commodity.

“Alongside this expansion, we have embarked on free new water connections to help those that cannot afford to connect to our system.

“We have already connected 22,500 households across the whole supply area. We are also building 60 new kiosks […] to reach out to the urban poor,” she added.

But those not accessing the water such as Ngowani and Matumika continue feeling neglected.

And chairperson for the Natural Resources and Climate Change Committee of Parliament, Werani Chilenga, believes that the current tariffs on water across the country will continue excluding poor households in peri-urban locations from accessing the commodity.

“Even if water pumps are extended to those areas, the people there cannot afford to pay for the water until the government subsidises tariffs for people who cannot pay for themselves,” Chilenga states.

He believes the Salima—Lilongwe Water Project could lessen access problems in the city as works would further extend to those who are currently unreached.

In the meantime, the project’s progress seems to have hit a snag as a deal with a potential financial has not yet been struck.

Through the project, the plan is to pump and deliver 50 million litres of potable water from Lake Malawi to Lilongwe City every day, which would be a permanent solution to water problems in the city.

The plan was reportedly conceptualised as a long-term and sustainable intervention to Lilongwe’s problems.

Deemed to be one of Africa’s largest water transfers, the venture was supposed to be completed three years ago. It has not even started.

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