Gender Links (Johannesburg)

29 October 2012

Malawi: Who Is to Blame for Water Woes?

Chisomo Kaunder, a student in Malawi, tells WaterAid about the difference made by having safe sanitation at school. ( Resource: Malawi: Sanitation for Students Makes an Impact

Blantyre — Malawian women, like their counterparts in many African countries are facing the effects of water scarcity. Climate change is often blamed for the water shortages, which result in greater time spent fetching water, exacerbate disease and divert women from other economic pursuits. The recurring water shortages in Lilongwe and Blantyre have shown that there is need to look deeper into the problem. Who is really to blame for the water woes? Can we entirely blame climate change or the city authorities are also to blame?

At the beginning of October, a group of residents from Area 25 in Lilongwe besieged Lilongwe Water Board (LWB) offices to demand an explanation from their service provider, on why they had erratic water supply for over a year in their township.

In Chilinde, residents gave LWB an ultimatum of ten days to improve their service or stop issuing them water bills. The men from the community acknowledge that water scarcity has adversely affected women and girls, as they have to spend their valuable time crisscrossing streets with water buckets in search of the precious resource in the city's townships.

Long queues of women and girls are not so much a rare sight at water kiosks where water is available.

Women involved in small-scale businesses have little time to trade their commodities as they spend hours looking for water.

"Often times I wake up as early as 4:00 AM to come and draw water from this well," complained one woman, Mrs. Tembo who lives in Chilomoni Township in Blantyre. Waking up so early in the morning let alone looking for water at night does not only deny women and girls time to engage in developmental activities or rest, but also exposes them to the risk of sexual violence.

Some water authorities in partnership with water non-governmental organisations have resorted to water kiosks to curb the problem of access to clean water. Water kiosks are prevalent in Sub-Saharan Africa and in Malawi. A water kiosk is a sheltered tap stand that is normally connected to a piped network in cities while in rural areas they are often connected to a well and a spring.

Member of Parliament for Blantyre-Kabula, Felix Njawala who has embarked on a water kiosks project in his constituency admits that the water problem is a gender issue. "In one incident, an unknown man raped a girl. We found out that the girl had been sent out alone at night to fetch water. This is why the water kiosks project is something that I have invested in passionately," he pointed out.

The water problem also affects school going girls because they have to fetch water before they go to school. By the time they get to school, their male counterparts would have already started learning. Their performance is also not up to scratch as they are often tired. In some instances, girls have dropped out of school as parents feel that it is a waste to pay school fees for underperforming girls. However, these decisions are made in complete ignorance of the factors which impact on girls' performance.

Water shortages and the cost of water from the water kiosks has also left many residents with little choice but to fetch water from untreated sources such as streams and open wells. Approximately 16 people have died of cholera in Blantyre this year. Among other causes, health officials cite unsafe water as one of the major cause of cholera cases.

For a few years now, Blantyre Water Board (BWB) officials keep blaming the water problem on former planners, who "did not pay much attention to issues of population growth." This is one of the reasons that have been cited to explain the current 'water rationing'.

The citizens have to bear the challenges at least until 2013. The BWB has promised that by then, it will have addressed water problems once and for all. Citizens, both women and men, should keep an eye on this commitment and demand accountability should the city authorities not deliver.

There is need for water service providers to accept responsibility, and provide solutions to water problems that weigh heavily on women and girls.

Indeed, the world faces the challenge of climate change. However, there is need to separate poor service and planning from climate change effects.

Malawi is endowed with bursting water reservoirs, including Lake Malawi, which is the third largest fresh water lake in Africa.

With sound water development plans and implementation, water supply problems could greatly be improved. Otherwise, the more time Malawian women and girls spend on fetching water, the less the contribution they can make to development.

Willie Kanthenga is a Bureau Chief at Trans World Radio in Blantyre, Malawi. The radio station is part of the Gender Links Media Centres of Excellence project. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service, bringing you fresh views on everyday news.

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