The Malawi Water Crisis: Initiatives Aim at Universal Access

Access to clean and safe water is essential for a healthy population. To address the Malawi water crisis, a collaboration between the government and key NGOs is attempting to curb the disastrous lack of access to this resource that is affecting broad swathes of the country.

words and photography by Deogracias Benjamin Kalima

The Water Situation in Malawi

In Malawi, while most urban areas have water piped directly to the home, inhabitants of rural areas are still dependent on boreholes to fulfil this critical need. The situation is tenuous, for these boreholes are becoming increasingly unreliable. While some of these dysfunctional water points are failing due to mechanical faults–as a result of wear and tear of borehole components, for example–there are others that, despite being in perfect working order, can no longer access the sub-surface level of an ever-decreasing water table.

Modester Frodreck, a young woman from Kadewere village in rural Blantyre, in the country’s south, wishes her village could have an uninterrupted source of safe water. Not only would this provide security and peace of mind, it would also save her time and expenses spent on treating family members that frequently fall sick from waterborne diseases. This wish is far from becoming a reality, however. Although her community of about 300 people has two boreholes, only one is currently working; the other dried up months ago.

Malawi Water Crisis: Two people filling water containers from a hand-powered pump
Modester Frodreck drawing water from a borehole

“Of the two boreholes we have in the village,” she says, “only one is functional, as the other is failing to pump water due what the technicians say is the lowering level of the water table.”

Due to the failure of the of this borehole, there is a greatly increased demand on the one fuctioning borehole. It gets crowded, which results in long delays for most women, who often have to wait hours before they get their turn to draw water for their households.

“It usually takes us an hour or two for us to go to draw water and return home,” Modester explained. “This is because the borehole is congested and at times discharging little amount of water than it does normally, especially in the summer.”

This forces women to use water from unprotected sources, such as shallow wells, which regularly results in household members getting sick of waterborne diseases such as diarrhea and cholera.

The Challenges to Access

According to the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development, only 80 percent of 17 million Malawians have access to clean water, leaving about 3.5 million people who lack access to life’s most essential resource. Out of those with access to clean water, only those in urban and semi-urban areas have access to chlorine-treated water, as each town has a respective water treatment and provision utility that ensures the safety of the water supply. This leaves those in rural areas, who make up the majority of the south east African country’s population, relying on boreholes as the only source of potable water.

With support from various stakeholders, like multilateral donors and non-governmental organizations, the Malawi Government has, over the years, been sinking boreholes in various villages in rural areas, so as to make sure everyone has access to clean water for drinking and household use. The boreholes are sunk at a location that water experts identify as having sustainable underground water levels. Through this kind of intervention, thousands of villages, translating into millions of people, have been reached with the provision of safe water throughout the country, thereby reducing incidences of waterborne diseases among children and adults alike.

However, with inconsistent rainfall patterns in recent years, and droughts that have affected most parts of the country, the water table has drastically declined and the majority of boreholes are now dry. In the area around Kadewere (a rural town north of Malawi’s capital city of Lilongwe) the problem is compounded further by topography. This area is located in the mountainous range of Chiradzulu and Zomba, meaning most villages are at a high altitude above sea level and their boreholes have difficulties pumping water in the lean months of the year.

Malawi Water Crisis: Large metallic pump for extracting ground water
Broken down and abandoned borehole

According to Frackson Nankwawa, a trained borehole technician who services broken boreholes in the area, the problem of boreholes not being able to pump out water has reached alarming levels. He knows of at least six water points that are not functional due to the low water table. This, he said, is due to a combination of climate change and local environmental degradation, pointing out the wanton felling of trees to make way for cultivation fields and fuel wood.

“The water situation here has reached critical levels,” he said, “where we have at least four boreholes which are no longer able to pump out water. As most areas here are hilly, it means the water table has really gone down, since it is dry season now, thereby the borehole pumping rods are not being able to reach the water table. This means these water points only resume to function again when it starts to rain again sometime in early December.”

Reforestation as a Part Solution

Nankwawa advises the communities around various boreholes to plant trees around their water points and hills to help deal with the problem in the long run, saying this worked elsewhere and their boreholes are now running all year round.

“Restoring the vegetative cover around hills and grounds around boreholes can help ending this after sometime,” he sums up.

For Frodreck, the advice of Nankwawa is priceless. As a village, the people of Kadewere have already started preparing to plant trees on bare ground, such as hills and river banks, and they are planning to start doing the same around boreholes’ catchment areas.

“We now have a tree nursery,” she adds, “which we want to use the seedlings to plant around hills, river banks and boreholes so as to maintain the water table in the long run.”

Steps to Retain Rainwater

Frodreck says, apart from planting trees in watershed spots of the area, they are also implementing other water conservation techniques to address the challenge. One such technique is swale technology. According to her, this is a ditch that is dug on contour or level. It is between four and six metres long, 30-45 centimetres wide and 40 centimetres deep. All the soil which is removed to make the ditch then gets moulded below it to form a retention wall, increasing the volume of the swale.

Malawi Water Crisis: Empty trench dug in the ground
A swale dug out on a hillside

“Through a local non governmental organization, Foundation for Integrated Sustainable Development (FISD), we have been taught to construct swales and deep trenches in slope areas in order to control water and minimize soil erosion occurrences,” she explains.

Frodreck continues to say that as water moves downhill the swale slows it down, giving it an opportunity to sink and infiltrate the ground, instead of running down to the river where it causes siltation or possible flooding. This water infiltration contributes to raising the water table in the long term and thus complements trees as part of a broader water-catchment strategy.

“The main purpose of the swale is to allow running water to soak into the ground,” she adds, “[rather] than seeing it waste away to rivers and leaving us with low water table in the summer months of September, October and November.”

Ground trench filled with water
Ground trench filled with water
Water captured by a swale

Looking to the Future

Grace Galimoto, an agricultural expert working with FISD says that, through funding from the World Food Programme (WFP), they implemented a resilience project in the area in 2017 and 2018 whose components included teaching local farmers climate change resilience and disaster coping strategies. Some of the strategies were planting drought-resistant crops like sweet potato and sorghum, introducing to farmers to goat farming (that can act as a backup in case crop farming fails) and constructing swales and deep trenches so that they control running water, therefore minimizing soil erosion effects, increasing water infiltration and potentially raising the ground water table.

“With the frequent occurrence of droughts and flooding,” Grace explains, “farmers’ yields have been drastically reducing, thereby affecting their household food security. To overcome this, we thought of teaching them climate resilience and disaster coping strategies.”

The village head, Che Ofesi, who is the reigning Chief of Kadewere, says that, unlike a decade ago, the realities of climate change are now affecting everyone in the area, such that it is a challenge that needs everyone’s participation in efforts to mitigate it.

“While a decade ago, climate change used to be term we just heard on radios,” he says, “these days we are living it, with so much negative impacts to our livelihoods. This battle need joint efforts by farmers like us and government.”

His words ring true. Water shortages continue to ravage countries the world over, a problem that will only worsen as the climate continues to change, and only a concerted and collaborative effort between governments, NGOs, farmers, businesses, and everyday citizens can hope to reverse this trend and aim towards securing clean and safe water for all.