The aesthetic appearance of Thyolo District Hospital conveys an image of hope and healing. Indeed, the facility has, over the years, served well over 700,000 people from the tea-growing district and surrounding areas. But CHIMWEMWE MANGAZI, in this Friday Shaker, exposes how intermittent supply of potable water is gradually undermining service delivery at the hospital.
Thyolo District Hospital in the Southern Region has gone for over two months without consistent water supply as taps have been misbehaving.
The situation has raised fears that the hospital may become a breeding ground for waterborne diseases that might, in the long run, negatively affect patients, guardians and hospital workers’ health.
The hospital relies on a borehole and water pumped underground, which is then stored in a tank. But the problem is that the water is untreated.
A source, who did not want to be named, said the water which is used in the theatre room is ferried in buckets from the tank and borehole.
The water also caters for toilets in the wards. Near the hospital is a guardian shelter with rooms for laundry and a kitchen.
One of the front desk workers said water from taps comes out for, at least, 30 minutes daily for three days in a week.
During our visit to the facility, we saw expectant women fetching water from taps connected to a tank that stores pumped water.
The women confirmed that they struggle to fetch enough water, more so because these are pregnant women.
A guardian we found at the borehole, Mary Chigalu, who had been at the hospital for a month, said the situation was serious as, at times, there are meandering queues. This means delays when preparing food for patients.
Thyolo District Council Chairperson, George Jailosi, Thursday said the council was aware of the water problem at the hospital.
“We know about the issue and it was aggravated after SRWB installed the prepaid meters but as a council, we will meet from next week and that issue is on the agenda to find a long-term solution to the problem,” Jailosi said.
“The tap that supplies pumped water is preserved for hospital workers and some patients but all the guardians are told to use water from the borehole. Sometimes, the queues are so long that we fail to prepare food for patients in time. This problem must be addressed,” Chigalu said.
Malawi Health Equity Network Executive Director, George Jobe, said it was unfortunate that a busy hospital such as that of Thyolo was operating without clean water.
“We know that this is a common challenge in most public hospitals that have unsettled water and electricity bills. The solution would be creating a rescue fund either in the national budget or elsewhere to ensure that public health facilities’ debts are cleared.
“For Thyolo, there should be no compromise; otherwise, that could lead to waterborne diseases or serious sanitation-related consequences,” Jobe said.
Thyolo District Health Officer, Arnold Jumbe, said the problem has arisen because of Southern Region Water Board (SRWB)’s decision to replace post-paid meters with prepaid ones.
He said, when the meters were installed, the hospital made a commitment to settle bills accrued since the hospital opened.
“We are servicing the water debt which dates back to the time the hospital was opened. Since SRWB installed the prepaid meters, we are getting 35 percent of the amount we pay and the remaining 65 percent goes into servicing the debt; so, we have supply according to how much we pay for the water.
“Currently, the debt we need to clear with the board is at K60 million. We pay them through cheques, spending roughly between K4 million and K5 million a month. It is not true that we have sporadic water supply; we have supply all the time.”
He said the money they spend on bills comes from Health Sector Joint Fund (HSJF) and Other Recurrent Transactions budget.
SRWB spokesperson, R it a Makwangwal a , confirmed that the facility was among the government institutions that have huge debts to settle and the board was recovering the amount due through the prepaid meters.
She said, when the board was installing prepaid meters at the hospital, it owed the board K106 million and, presently, the debt stands at K96 million.
“When we are connecting a customer, we understand that what we are offering is also a social service [and] that is why most of the government institutions had bills accrue into huge debts but we came to a point where we negotiated with them to start settling the bills and it is the more reason we embarked on installing prepaid meters in all the government institutions,” Makwangwala said.
Ministry of Health spokesperson, Joshua Malango, said all district hospitals pay utility bills using HSJF and Thyolo hospital had not sought the ministry’s intervention.
“So far, we have not received any complaint from any DHO [district health officer] that they are failing to utilise the funds. We may need to find out from Thyolo District Hospital how they are doing with HSJF for their utility bills.
“However, we know that, sometimes, districts delay in accessing funds because of their administration and accounts officers’ capacities to access the funds,” Malango said.
Thyolo hospital functions as a secondary referral centre, receiving patients from 37 health centres in the district.
The facility, which has been operational for many years, was re-built in 2005. The hospital’s catchment area is Thyolo District, which has a population of 721,456.
European Development Fund financed construction of the hospital and the facility has, in the past, won the government awards for best sanitation practices.
The hospital has four operating theatres and a maternity unit. It also runs clinics for cervical cancer screening and treatment, antiretroviral drugs, communicable diseases, chest, surgical clinic, gynaecology and an orthopaedic department. The facility also has a radiography department, laboratory and performs surgeries.
Serious complications are referred to Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital and Cure International Hospital in Blantyre.
When all is said and done, there is need for the authorities to rise to the occasion to avert devastating effects of using unhygienic water at a health facility.
As goes the saying, prevention is better than cure.