The toilet challenge in Malawi


As the world commemorates World Toilet Day, 62 out of 263 Traditional Authorities have been declared Open Defecation Free (ODF). This means that 76.4 percent of them are yet to achieve this status. KENNETH JALI writes about the challenges

As Malawi today joins the rest of the world to commemorate the World Toilet Day, the sad news is that out of 263 Traditional Authorities, only 62 have achieved the status of Open Defection Free (ODF).

After 53 years of Independence, why is it then that most villages in Malawi still find it difficult to reach that desirable status of ODF? The answers are many and lack of commitment is one of them.


Jacinta Joseph of TA Mlauli in Neno tells an interesting story. She is in her late twenties but has already had terrible experiences with men. Jacinta says that her former husbands could not build a house and a toilet for her. This forced her and the entire household to relieve themselves in nearby bushes.

“They couldn’t build a toilet for me. They were only interested in ‘playing’ with me. I have just realised that I exposed my life and that of my loved ones to water borne diseases. Defecating in the bushes was part of my lifestyle,” she recalls.

Although Jacinta’s village has been accorded the ODF status, the percentage of TAs in Malawi that are struggling to build a decent toilet remains on a lower side.


Water Aid says that 9.7 million Malawians out of the country’s population of 17 million do not have a decent toilet.

But not all is lost. We are getting there. A Millennium Development Goals end line survey of 2014 Report, said that people using improved sanitation in Malawi increased to around 40.6 percent in recent years.

This, however, shows more needs to be done and a lot of resources are required if the country is to meet Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) number six by 2030.

It is estimated in the SDGs that 2.4 billion people in the World lack access to basic sanitation services, such as toilets or latrines.

But government says positive strides are being registered.

“So far we have had 62 traditional authorities declared ODF. People were defecating in the bush in these areas but have constructed toilets,” Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Health, Dan Namalika says.

However, the percentage of TAs that declared ODF is at 23.6.

“I had to lead the way for the area to achieve the ODF status. I had to undergo a two-year training along with my subordinates for us to be here. It is now a must for every household to own a toilet, a rubbish pit, a hang wire for clothes and a hand washing facility,” Mlauli says.

But while villages like Mlauli’s have achieved the ODF status, the new emerging problem is the effect of these pit latrines on communities probability of water contamination

This is due to the fact that most of the toilets being built are traditional pit latrines that experts say contaminate ground water.

Speaking on this challenge, Professor Adamson Muula of College of Medicine (CoM) says unprocessed human waste is among things that contaminate ground water.

“Ground water is also likely to be contaminated with viruses and bacterial from septic tanks, burst sewer pipes and pit latrines. Groundwater contamination can move from the original source of contamination over a wide area or very deep underground.

While Namalika agrees with Muula. He says efforts are already in place to arrest the challenge.

“It is true that when one is constructing a toilet, they have to be rewarded with provision of safe water. We are talking to our development partners that TAs that are being declared ODF should be rewarded with safe water and a good source of energy.

“We are going to every TA who has achieved ODF status to acknowledge and reward them so that others are also motivated,” he says.

Contaminated water in Malawi breeds waterborne diseases like diarrhoea which kills over 3,000 under five children every year, says Water Aid.

“Contamination can persist for a long time as groundwater moves slowly and often lacks the natural biological, chemical, and physical processes that help cleanse surface water,” Muula says.

So while Jacinta is happy that her village has achieved ODF status, she and many others in her community have another task: They need to lobby their local leadership to make sure that pit latrines they are building in their villages do not become a source of diseases for their children.

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