No nearby water – and its rippling effects

Jenipher Changwanda didn’t face any obstacles in investigating the problem of access to portable water in the villages of the Balaka district in Malawi. Women and young girls in the area, who are the ones responsible for household chores, are exposed to such dangers when collecting water that they were more than willing to have a platform to express their problems.

Jenipher Changwanda. Image: Winston Mwale

“People in the area had a hunger to voice their concerns pertaining to water scarcity. They relayed how they have suffered in spite of having worked very hard to dig trenches during the construction of the dam, as part of so-called ownership,” said Changwanda.

Collecting Water Dangerous for Women and Girls, published on September 3 2020 in The Nation newspaper with the Centre for Cooperative Investigative Journalism (CCIJ) as co-publisher, took a month to investigate, and brings to light the gender dimensions of this problem.

Women in the district risk their lives in the quest for water. Some wake up as early as 2am and journey to neighbouring villages, a trip which places them at the mercy of sexual predators. At  times they have to fend off hyenas. The United Nations General Assembly and the Human Rights Council recognise water and sanitation as a basic human right. But, as Changwanda finds in her investigation, this right in flouted by many governments on the African continent.

Balaka is one of the districts in Malawi that depends on water from the Mpira Dam in Ntcheu district, part of the Mpira-Balaka Water Rural Piped Project. The project was birthed by a need to provide rural communities with adequate water supply.  Pipes were laid in 1990,  yet 22 years down the line community members face severe water shortages with intermittent and unreliable water supply. This is compounded by the fact that the number of people depending on the dam has doubled since it was built.

In 2018 the Mpira dam ran dry yet media reports have painted a picture of glory. Knowing these reports were not accurate, Changwanda decided to investigate: “This was an inspiring moment to unearth the reality on the ground, and how scarcity of water was affecting the daily life of the people”.

After Changwanda’s story was published, Onances Nyirenda, project manager for the scheme, acknowledged there were problems.  Plans were made to drill wells to supplement water from the dam but nothing tangible has been done. Changwanda hopes to go back to Balaka and investigate further.

The plight of these woman and young girls touched Changwanda as she is an advocate for gender equality. Besides her job as a journalist and producer at the Christian station, Radio Maria, Changwanda contributes to  Gender Links News Service, an NGO and multimedia project that promotes gender equality, and  spearheads the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Protocol on Gender and Development.

She is also a member of the Centre for Cooperative Investigative Journalism (CCIJ). She has seven year’s of journalism experience, has a journalism diploma and her insatiable thirst for knowledge has led her to pursue a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication studies at Mzuzu University in Malawi.

Featured image: A woman from Balaka sits next a communal tap that has run dry. Image: Jenipher Changwanda

Collecting Water Dangerous for Women and Girls

Accessing potable water is as easy as switching on a tap for people living in developed nations – but is a fraught with danger for women and girls in Malawi`s Balaka district.

They face the ever-present possibility of sexual assault and being attacked by thugs and wild animals – like hyenas – as they trudge long distance in the early morning darkness to collect water for their families.

Already struggling with social challenges like food shortages, residents in rural areas of Balaka District are angry that the Mpira-Balaka-Rural-Water-Supply-Project  has not made life easier for them. Instead it has subjected them to an intermittent and unreliable water supply for the past 22 years.

Many people in the area – some of them pregnant women, others with babies strapped to their backs – toiled hard to dig the trenches for pipes to bring water from the dam to their villages.

Martha Lameck from Kanyole Village says that the villagers were “forced” to work digging trenches for pipes. But they did so willingly, expecting that water shortages would be a thing of the past after the pipeline was laid in 1990.

But Lameck says the piped water only flowed for eight years before it was diverted to supply households in the high density, urban Balaka Town, depriving villagers and leaving them “angrily and feeling cheated”.

The project to deliver water from the  Mpira Dam was originally intended to address long-term water availability for both  the people and economic sectors of Balaka, as well as others below the dam. Mpira Dam is 4.57 kilometer long and has a capacity of 3.72 million cubic litres, with a 42km2 catchment area.

Mpira-Balaka Rural Piped Water project manager Onances Nyirenda says the scheme faces “technical and management challenges” that interrupt the supply of water to communities.

The project, which is managed by the Southern Region Water Board (SRWB), covers an area of 1900 square kilometers. It was designed to meet the needs of 354,000 people but the dam currently supplies water to over 515,000 people, including Balaka, he says.

Degradation of the catchment area through human activities including cutting down trees and burning charcoal, has led to build-up of silt in the reservoir and poor raw water quality resulting in high treatment costs, says Nyirenda.

“Vandalism and theft of water facilities such as pipes, siltation, and blockage of mainline and distribution pipes is resulting in an increased number of dry taps.

Many of the communal taps that once supplied water to villages now run dry and many have been vandalised. They are a stark reminder that once there was a viable scheme that provided water to the semi-arid area, where most of the rivers are dry by June.

Shirah Kambuku Kambaule, the chairperson of the Area Development Committee (ADC) of Traditional Authority Sawali, agrees with Lameck.

“The piped water project, meant for us rural people, only benefited us for a few years,“, she says, adding that she and others have had to walk for kilometers to fetch water for years.

“No one is explaining to us about what went wrong for the water of Mpira Dama to stop flowing in our taps. What is more painful about the water problem in our community is that we were part of the group that helped dig the trenches where they laid pipes. Today, the water that we toiled for is benefiting communities living in urban areas. This is unfair.”

This unfairness is endangering the lives of women and girls according to Enifa Mbalu, a resident of Bulusi Village.

“There are times when the water table is so low water shortages becomes a serious problem,” says Mbalu who made an impassioned appeal for the Malawian government to intervene in their plight.

“We wake up around 2am to fetch water from the next village where over 300 households scramble for water,“ she says. Those fortunate enough to own bicycles can cycle to water points to fetch water – a luxury most women in her community cannot afford. Instead, they must resort to the traditional way of carrying water in buckets balanced on their heads.”

Married woman also face gender-based violence as a direct result of water shortages, she says. “Some women have been divorced by their husbands, who suspect that they are having extra marital affairs since they leave them sleeping, around 2 am,” she says. “And some men also sneak out and indulge in sexual activities with other women when their wives have gone to fetch water.”


Covid-19 compounds the problem

Along with closure of schools because of Covid-19, the water shortage is also harming young girls, says Lameck.

“The water situation can be so bad that even young girls are getting married because when they go to fetch water, they end up in the hands of men soliciting sex,” she says.

“These men promise the girls that they will help them get access to water faster. In a situation where there are many scrambling for water, the girls give in. It`s even worse now that schools are closed due to COVID-19 and girls are just loitering around”.

Besides the ever-present danger of villages water-borne disease, the lack of water is also affecting the personal hygiene of women, as well as young girls who skips classes when they are menstruating.

“They suffer a lot and have their dignity compromised as they use water economically and sparingly,“ says Lameck.

Shukurani Louis 14, who is from the same village, says she and her friends have been profoundly affected because they spend “a lot of time fetching water” rather than concentrating on their studies.

“With the growing need for water due to the COVID-19 pandemic, water scarcity has increased our workload and we are making several round trips every day carrying heavy drums walking under the scorching sun,” she says. “We spend hours fetching. Apart from covering long distances, we must also wait for our turn (to draw water). It`s time-consuming,“ says Louis.

The situation has been exacerbated by thieves who have vandalised nearby boreholes and taps by stealing parts such as pipes, handles, bolts and nuts.

“Now that schools are closed, the children who have nothing to do play in the water sources like rivers and small ponds where we draw water. The water we depend on for domestic use for drinking, washing, and cleaning is always contaminated. We have to boil it before we use it,” says Lameck

Etles Kachala, who lives on the community around Kanyole, wants Malawi’s civil society to add its voice to calls for improved water supply services.

“Civil society has helped to change things in politics,” she says, “Why is it that these organisations are failing to fight for our welfare? Water is life, we are being denied that right”.

Kachala says a few boreholes have been sunk in surrounding communities by non-governmental organisations, “but these cannot cater for everyone.

“The water shortages experienced by communities around here is real,” she says.


Unsafe water often the only option

NICE Trust, a public trust committed to deepening democracy and good governance in Malawi, says water scarcity compromises the right to water for communities that depend on Mpira Dam and leave “no option “other than to use unsafe water.

The result is that many people end up contracting water-borne diseases which can eventually affect their productivity  and from participating in economic activities, says Henry Zekeria, Nice Trust Manager in Balaka district.

“The water crisis in Balaka and Ntcheu got worse in 2018 and there were some initiatives to drill some wells to supplement the already existing water source (Mpira Dam). But until now, one can say, nothing tangible has changed,” says Zekeria.

In the words of Kambaule of the Kambale Tradition Authority Sawali in Balaka, “it remains the same old song unless being able to walk the talk on water supply that is reliable and accessible”,

This story was produced with support from the Centre for Cooperative Investigative Journalism