Bernadetta Tengeza, 23, lives in Area 26, which is located less than one kilometre to the west of the Kanengo Branch of Lilongwe Water Board (LWB).
The board was established by an Act of Parliament and was mandated to provide adequate and reliable water supply to residents of the city of Lilongwe.
The motto of the utility body is ‘Potable water all the time for all’. However, as Tengeza and other residents in Area 26 observe, the motto only applies to the elite.
“LWB has incessantly refused to connect us because we are low-income earners. We have tried our best to convince them that we have the capacity to pay, but they have rejected our applications, citing a litany of excuses,” Tengeza laments.
Since the early 2000s, the Malawi Government has made clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene for every person a priority.
Unicef estimates that 67 percent of Malawi’s households have access to drinking water. However, the agency observes that distribution among districts, and between urban and rural areas, is uneven.
According to the agency, improved drinking water sources are more common in urban areas at 87 percent compared to 63 percent in rural areas.
“In rural areas, 37 percent of households spend 30 minutes or more to fetch drinking water in comparison to 13 percent in urban areas. Further analyses within districts also reveal the distribution of water services in some areas is poor and uneven,” Unicef says.
The United Nations (UN) agency adds that only 77 percent of water points nationwide are functional. The rest no longer work because of old age, catchment deterioration, neglect, lack of spare parts and inadequate community-based water management structures.
Women and children shoulder the burden posed by poor access to water services as they often long distances to collect water for their families.
The UN challenges that countries cannot achieve Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 without corporate action.
It states that significant progress will rely on robust data on the current landscape and what needs to change to ensure environmental sustainability on water.
However, as Tengeza observes, Malawi could be off-track, as the majority of the residents in towns and cities do not have access to clean water and sanitation.
She fears that utility bodies are deliberately side-lining underprivileged city residents – who form the majority of the population – in the provision of clean water because they are after huge sums of money.
“In Area 26, for instance, residents have never tasted tap water. We live the best part of our lives on earth as second-class people, not deserving access to social services such as clean and safe drinking water, health and education.
“Imagine in this age, sharing drinking water with domestic and wild animals. We don’t have schools; no boreholes and no health centre in this area. The struggle is real,” she says.
Malawi Congress Party Member of Parliament (MP) for Lilongwe City West Constituency, George Zulu, concurred with Tengeza when asked to make a speech during a tree-planting ceremony LWB organised recently.
Zulu said it was unjustified for residents of Area 26 and many other townships to be denied access to tap water just because they fall under low-income earning communities.
“LWB is giving priority to the rich, low-density areas and companies in its water distribution exercise. We do appreciate that they are into business, but it’s wrong to completely abandon underprivileged residents.
“They also have to assume corporate social responsibility by extending their services to the underprivileged communities such as high-density areas,” he said.
Forestry and Natural Resources Minister, Nancy Tembo, shared Zulu’s concerns, stressing that it is upsetting that people of Lilongwe City townships such as Mchesi, Biwi and Chilinde should be drawing water from streams and shallow wells.
Tembo, who is also MP for Lilongwe City South West, said there is no justification for the board to deny residents their right to water.
“The board must distribute water to every resident who is able to pay for the service in spite of the area they come from. Some are living in high-density areas, but have money to pay,” she said.
LWB Board Chairperson George Kajanga admitted the disparities in the distribution of water services to the residents.
Kajanga promised that the board would address the problem to ensure residents such as Tengeza are connected to LWB’s system.