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Turning Lake Malawi into toilet

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NYIRENDA—It is usually
for a few hours

Water is in abundance in various parts of Malawi but millions still face challenges in accessing the commodity, which the United Nations wants easily obtainable by the end of this decade. FESTON MALEKEZO writes.

Steven Nyirenda, 74, has his house just a stone’s throw from the sparkling waters of Lake Malawi. He is lucky to have a communal water tap near his house but sad that the facility seldom gives him the prized liquid.

“As I am talking, there has been no running water for days. When it flows, it is usually just for a few hours,” Nyirenda says.

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Residents of the area that forms Nyirenda’s village mostly turn to a lone borehole nearby when water fails to run through the taps.

However, the borehole does not always optimally supply them with the water as, during the dry season, the water table sinks deeper into the earth.

In the lakeshore district, 52 in every 100 people fail to access clean and potable water which would otherwise be readily available from Africa’s third largest freshwater lake.

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Elsewhere in the district, in Mtilirwa Village, Traditional Authority Mkumbira, Lilian Manda’s household is also struggling to access clean and potable water.

Manda says she has to cover several kilometres to fetch water at the nearest borehole where the scramble becomes even more pronounced during the dry season.

“To ensure everyone gets something from the borehole, we agreed that no family should draw more than 20 litres of water. Yet in the case of my family, we need at least 160 litres of water a day. My family is big,” Manda explains.

She also reveals that accessing the borehole through rocky footpaths with their sides teeming with overhanging branches constantly threatens their lives as wild animals lurk in the bushes.

“There is also the threat of women being raped by dangerous men who look for opportunities to gratify their immoral desires,” the mother of five says.

There is a water tap at her home but drawn-out dry spells push the family to the faraway borehole which she can only access after paying a monthly contribution of K500. At times, she has to send some women to draw water for her family and pays them K100 per bucket.

And while the borehole water is potable and clean, it has a saline taste that makes drinking uncomfortable.

“The borehole is open from 5 in the morning and closed for three hours from noon. The idea is to allow more water to gather and reduce breakdowns due to overuse,” Manda explains.

During one of our visits to the borehole, we met one Ethel Manda who had joined six other women waiting for their turn after the borehole had been unlocked for the afternoon session.

Manda admits that the scramble for water at the borehole sometimes turns ugly as everyone seeks to return home in good time with the treasured liquid.

“We have sometimes picked quarrels which end up in physical fights. It is a problem that needs an urgent solution. It is strange that we, residents of a lakeshore district, should be struggling to access clean and potable water,” Manda says.

Nkhata Bay District Water Development Officer, Alex Mwakikunga, acknowledges the water problems in the district.

Among other factors, he attributes the situation to the supply system which, he says, was first constructed in 1960 and upgraded in 1980

“Northern Region Water Board has been trying to supply water to Nkhata Bay town as a whole and some peri-urban areas such as Chintheche. At Nkhata Bay town, we have been experiencing a number of system breakages and supply shortages. This has been an on-going problem,” Mwakikunga says.

The system currently provides water to 18,072 people through 60 communal water points, 1,682 individual connections and 84 commercial and 51 institutional connections.

The current water supply infrastructure in the tourist town was designed for the 2010 demand, which has been gradually rising with the increase in population.

Apparently, no major rehabilitation or upgrading works have been carried out on the distribution pipe network since 2003.

There is another challenge: Only one in every 10 residents of the lakeshore district has improved sanitation facilities such as toilets.

Mwakikunga admits that Nkhata Bay does not have a public sewage system except for the private waterborne system operated by Nkhata Bay District Hospital.

Pit latrines are the commonest type of sanitation facilities serving the population at the town centre.

“People in some locations continue to help themselves on the beaches or the lake itself.

In other areas, the lake is literally the toilet. This is particularly so because the other side is hilly and digging up a toilet is quite a challenge,” Mwakikunga adds.

He explains that, for such communities, technologies such as sandbags and skyloo are necessary but cannot be supplied by the council alone.

Commenting on the water supply situation, engineer from NRWB Jackson Mtungira says the abundant water in Lake Malawi can supply the lakeshore town with the precious liquid for many years if the intake structure and treatment plant were upgraded to the necessary production capacity.

Mtungira says the system has very old pipes which leak badly and compel NRWB to lose 55 percent of its revenue, which cannot be billed.

In the meantime, Nyirenda, Manda and other residents of Nkhata Bay are waiting for the rehabilitation and upgrading of their district’s water supply system to have consistent flow of water again.

“Since the demand for water has exponentially grown and new consumers cannot be connected to the system due to unavailability of pipelines, the new works are critically important,” Mtungira says.

He further hopes the works will minimise water pollution at intake level, support efforts to curb open defecation and improve household sanitation, among other things.

According to Water Aid, 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.

Some of these reside in lakeshore communities such as Nkhata Bay.

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