By Grecium Gama & Richard Chirombo:
When Malawi first registered the first case of coronavirus on April 2 2020, school-goer Dorothy Makolo had everything related to school work: 10 exercise books, three pencils, seven pens and one set of uniform.
Still, she wanted to drop out of school.
“I did not want to drop out of school due to reasons related to academic work; far from it. I entertained thoughts of dropping out of school because I have always faced challenges when it comes to access to potable water,” says the standard seven learner at Milepe Primary School in Phalombe.
She could not understand why the water access situation at the school was no different from the situation back home.
In Mukhumpwa Village, Traditional Authority Namasoko, Phalombe District, access to potable water has been a challenge since Malawi’s independence day on July 6 1964.
“In my village, we work up early in the morning so that we can take the long walk to Phalombe River, which has been our longstanding source of water for domestic use. We have been drinking water from the river; we have been using the same water for washing and bathing. Domesticated animals also use the same water.
“As such, for one to have a successful day, he or she needed to wake up before sunrise to cover the one hour one-way journey to Phalombe River. It is another hour before one comes back home to do household chores, take a quick bath and rush to school. For young people like me, this has always been a burden,” she sheds light into challenges she has been facing.
Not even Covid, which has spurred the Ministry of Education to drill boreholes in public schools across the country as one way of addressing problems related to Covid, could save the situation for Milepe Primary School learners and teachers alike.
No such borehole has been drilled at the learning institution, despite other schools in the country benefitting from the initiative.
When Presidential Taskforce on Covid co-Chairperson Wilfred Chalamira Nkhoma and team presented a Covid update report to President Lazarus Chakwera early this week, one of the issues that cropped up related to the drilling of boreholes.
Chalamira Nkhoma said, for instance, that since the first case of coronavirus was registered in the country, Malawi had built about 383 classroom blocks, of which 374 are completed; and sunk boreholes in primary schools.
In January this year, Education Minister Agnes NyaLonje also alluded to the issue.
She said, apart from procuring personal protective equipment for secondary schools across the country, the ministry had also drilled boreholes in schools across the country.
“Among other things, the ministry has procured 3,072 water buckets, 25,600 cartons of hand-washing soap, 1,024,000 boxes of surgical masks, 51,200 400ml bottles of hand sanitiser and 51,200 60ml bottles of hand sanitisers to be distributed to secondary schools across the country,” she said.
The government planned to construct 502 boreholes in schools across the country.
However, Makolo has been waiting almost forever for one such borehole.
The problem of poor access to water did not only affect learners; teachers, too, faced the same predicament.
As head teacher for the school, Denis Mitulo, attests, members of staff used to be left with no option but to rely on learners to draw water from the river far away.
He says the implications of that on learners’ education were dire.
“The learners were being exposed to waterborne diseases. In addition, time for classes was being wasted as precious time was spent on water-fetching errands. The water was being used for drinking and other tasks,” Mitulo says.
However, water woes at Milepe and other places in Phalombe emanate from a number of reasons.
According to Jasten Chilala, who is the borehole area mechanic for Namasoko in Phalombe District, water levels in areas such as Milepe are too low, such that most boreholes are not capable of bringing out water.
“Sometimes, boreholes break down due to excessive force which water drawers apply when using a borehole. This is because the water table is low in some areas.
“When the water table is too low, the borehole becomes stiff and too hard to turn due to unavailability of water at the level it has been fixed. But since people are in dire need of water they continue to force it and end up breaking some parts inside it. That is why most boreholes do not last long in such areas,” Chilala said.
This could be the case with Milepe Primary School, which received a gift of a borehole in 2015.
However, break-downs became a routine occurrence. Group Village Headwoman (GVH) Mukhumpwa remembers those days vividly.
“A month could hardly pass without the borehole breaking down. The situation used to cause indescribable discomfort to community members, who hardly had cash to be contributing funds meant for borehole repairs,” she says.
Estery Nakonya, who is the Borehole Maintenance Committee Chairperson, echoes the GHV’s sentiments.
“Because we were contributing funds almost on monthly basic, people felt that they were being made to pay for water as if they were getting it from a tap managed by Southern Region Water Board. When it stopped working altogether, we could not repair it,” she says.
However, community members have heaved a sigh of relief after a Christian Organisation called Design Outreach Ministries (Dom) has reached out to them with a different type of borehole.
It is called a life pump borehole, which is being used in various parts of the country after Ministry of Water officials approved the design.
According to the providers of the boreholes, the design is capable of drawing water from 150 metres deep.
“As such, problems associated with low water tables, which affect people’s rights, especially when it comes to access to potable water, will become a thing of the past. We want to make water available to people who crave it so that community members should no longer be covering long distances to access water,” says Titus Nnesa, who is Dom Community Relations Officer.
The organisation has donated 13 life pump boreholes to community members across Malawi. It is currently drilling 14 more boreholes in areas where people struggle to access the life-saving liquiddue to the problem of low water table.
For people like Makolo and Mitulo, however, life has started changing for the better already, a situation they attribute to the drilling of the life pump borehole in August 2021.
“At least 20 of the girls that dropped out of school are back in school,” Mitulo indicates.
Makolo agrees: “We, learners, no longer cover a long distance to draw water from the river. We have water right here at the school,” she says.
Water and Sanitation Minister Abida Mia hails organisations that are bringing technology-related solutions to communities that have had long standing problems when it comes to access to potable water.
Mia says life pump boreholes would go a long way in helping community members save money, which they can use for productive activities.
“When people spend too much money on borehole repairs, they lose out in some aspects of life. We are, therefore, pleased that we have life pump boreholes. The boreholes will go a long way in helping Malawi meet Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs),” the minister says.
The United Nations established 17 SDGs in 2015. SDG 6 focuses on making available “clean water and sanitation for all”.
According to the global body, State parties have an obligation to “Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all”.
However, according to the United Nations Development Programme, water access continues to be a challenge in various parts of the world including Malawi.
“Water scarcity affects more than 40 percent of people, an alarming figure that is projected to rise as temperatures do. Although 2.1 billion people have improved water sanitation since 1990, dwindling drinking water supplies are affecting every continent. More and more countries are experiencing water stress, and increasing drought and desertification is already worsening these trends. By 2050, it is projected that at least one in four people will suffer recurring water shortages.
“Safe and affordable drinking water for all by 2030 requires that we invest in adequate infrastructure, provide sanitation facilities, and encourage hygiene.
Protecting and restoring water-related ecosystems is essential. Ensuring universal safe and affordable drinking water involves reaching over 800 million people who lack basic services and improving accessibility and safety of services for over two billion,” it says in a statement.
However, by drilling one life pump borehole at a time, some organisations are taking small but steady steps that will help Malawi meet SDG goals related to water accessibility and, that way, keep learners in school.