It is estimated that 80 percent of Malawians have access to potable water but the irony is that over four million people use unsafe water. Most households at Chikangawa Forest in Mzimba could be among those that are denied a right to clean water. MANDY PONDANI visited the forest area and, in this Friday Shaker, gives a first-hand account of how women cover long distances, risking their lives, to fetch water.
Litness Ngwira 42, is living with a back problem that started some years ago as a result of hauling large cans and tins of water for a distance of three kilometres daily.
Wife to a police officer, Ngwira links the back pains to the year 2014, when they relocated to Viphya Plantations, commonly known as Chikangawa Forest, in Mzimba, where they were greeted by acute water problems.
She said dilapidated water infrastructure at the plantation makes access to potable water a far-fetched dream for Chikangawa community members.
Women and girls cover long distances in search of water from shallow wells, springs and unsafe sources, a development that affects the members, especially women.
“I live with this back pain every day. I suffer from persistent body pains because of the strenuous activity of carrying water buckets up the high land of Mjikijiki from a spring. It is located over two kilometres from here,” Ngwira said.Advertisement
She is among 2,000 households of officers working in Viphya. The households are sitting on a ticking time bomb because of sanitation system breakdown due to perpetual water shortages.
A visit by The Daily Times to the plantation revealed that residential compounds of the forest [main, dam, road, senior and junior quarters] run dry 10 years ago with no safe and reliable alternative water sources.
The piped water system, which was installed in the 1960s, lies in a dilapidated state, with no hope that it would ever be resuscitated to serve the growing population of the area.
Following the development, people pass through scary terrains in search of water in the thick plantation.
There is something scary, however, about the water from Mjikijiki, which could be life-threatening.
Although the water looks clean, Ngwira said it produces a pungent smell which raises suspicion on its original source.
“Apart from the smell, there is discoloration when the water spends some time in a bucket. It turns red or orange, thus raising questions on where exactly water in the spring originates. It could be somewhere unhygienic; no one knows,” she said.
For those that cannot brave Mjikijiki slopes, Kalungulu Dam, we gathered, comes in handy although it faces pollution and contamination hazards in addition to reduced water levels.
The water purification system at the dam broke down many years ago, rendering the water unsuitable for human consumption.
“We have had cases of drowning time and again; bodies of such victims are rarely recovered. They decompose at the dam right there and we drink from such decayed matter. This water poses a serious health hazard,” Ngwira said.
Looking around, children in the plantation are frail, most likely due to poor health.
“The water challenge here is unbearable; waterborne diseases and other related illnesses have become commonplace. We feel sidelined and discriminated against, maybe because we are more like forest dwellers,” a resident of the area, Caroline Mhango, said.
Mhango revealed another ugly side of the water crisis at Chikangawa.
She lamented growing cases of harassment and sexual assault on girls by people who invade the forest for illegal activities such as logging and timber sawing.
Mhango said: “They pounce on our children, on our girls, thereby shattering their future. Things have gone out of hand. The girls need a male escort if they are sent to collect water from the dam or spring.”
She wondered why the government, through the Department of Forestry, was failing to invest in proper water infrastructure for the officers and their families whose work involves guarding the once world’s largest man-made forest.
Memories are fresh in the mind of 53-year-old Aida Mtali of how she almost lost her life while giving birth to her fourth child at the plantation’s dispensary.
Mtali said, at the 11th hour, her guardian and nurse discovered that a water pump at the clinic had broken down and there was urgent need of water.
“While my guardian was out to fetch water, I went into labour. I started losing blood. I was in too much pain to call the nurse. By God’s grace, she appeared just in time to attend to me. That is how scary the water problem has become for us,” she said.
Because of the challenge, those that can afford go to Mzuzu Central Hospital for medical treatment.
Chikangawa Dispensary clinician, Gertrude Nyirongo, admitted that healthcare service delivery was compromised at the facility due to the problem of water shortage.
“In any health centre set-up, water is a priority. We, sometimes, have patients that should take medication instantly but the problem is lack of water. When handling patients, we have to frequently wash our hands to avoid transmitting infections. But all that has, overtime, become difficult to achieve due to water supply problems,” Nyirongo said.
Forest Officer, Maxwell Lungu, corroborated Nyirongo’s sentiments on the plight of women in the area as regards access to water.
The situation, he said, had an economic bearing on families as their hard-earned money is mostly spent on medical bills to treat waterborne diseases, especially among children.
“Women in these compounds spend productive hours fetching water; need I say that we as bread-winners, we, men, spend huge sums of money on sick children and also buying electricity units for the water pump which never helps anyone. We really need help,” Lungu said.
He wondered why Viphya Plantations had not benefitted from the highly touted government reforms initiative, saying, with the devolution of services, the water section would have been among the priority areas.
Chief Forestry Officer, Matias Gondwe, admitted that there is a perpetual water problem in the plantation and attributed the problem to resource constraints.
Being a standalone system, Gondwe said his office relies on the monthly subversion which Viphya receives from Capital Hill which, he noted, hardly caters for the spare parts needed to rejuvenate the water system in the forest.
“We are outside the Northern Region Water Board (NRWB) jurisdiction and water here is free-of-charge for everyone. No one pays a dime, so we solely depend on money from the government to carry out all the maintenance work and it is never enough. Most of the pipes are too old,” Gondwe said.
He, however, complained that, whenever water pumps are functional, households within the compound are unwilling to contribute money for the purchase of electricity units to run them.
“An idea was hatched that families should be contributing at least K1,000 for electricity units for the operation of the pumps, but most of them are hesitant. That is why there is a lot of rationing and they, in turn, blame management,” he said.
He appealed to the government and NRWB to consider collaborating in upgrading the water system in the plantation, which, according to our investigation, was installed in 1981.
Viphya receives a monthly subversion of K1.2 million, of which K250,000 is allocated to electricity units.
Asked about the government’s plan for Chikangawa as regard to water supply, Director of Water Resources in the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development, Prince Mleta, wondered if the ministry still had jurisdiction over the Chikangawa water system.
He referred The Daily Times to Deputy Director of Water Supply Services, Emma Mbalame, and NRWB.
Mbalame could not be reached.
But NRWB Director of Communications, Edward Nyirenda, said Chikangawa was in their plans although there were a number of factors and issues to be considered.
“Nevertheless, we did a feasibility study for the area based on their current system. We are developing a financing proposal for a new system there. We also believe that, once we construct a new dam for Mzuzu at Lambilambi behind Elephant Rock, Chikangawa would be easily taken care of,” Nyirenda said.
Apparently, newly elected Member of Parliament for the area, Wezi Gondwe, has promised to lobby for resources for water conservation as well as mitigating vulnerabilities arising from the problem of water scarcity.
While Malawi is relatively rich in water resources, United States Agency for International Development (USaid) estimates that over four million Malawians lack access to clean water.
USaid estimates that 80 percent of the country’s population has access to clean water, meaning that some four million people use unclean water.
With 86 percent of the population living in rural areas, Malawi has a daunting task of meeting the sixth development goal of universal access to clean water and sanitation through improvement of accessibility.
For now, the people of Chikangawa can only wait, impatiently, for potable water.
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