Friday 22 March marked the 20th anniversary of UN World Water Day. On this day every year, the world reflects on the water crisis and tries to find solutions especially in the face of rapid climate change. The UN General Assembly has also dedicated 2013 as the Year of Water Co-operation.
According to the World Health Organisation, the UN Millennium Development Goal target to halve the proportion of people without clean water was reached in 2010. In the last two decades, two billion people have gained access to safe drinking water. However, 783 million people - nearly one in ten people - remain without safe drinking water and 2.5 billion people do not have access to sanitation.
In Malawi, only half of the rural population has access to clean drinking water and improved sanitation. The situation is slightly better in urban areas, but due to rapid urbanisation, the demand for water and sanitation is growing fast. Water scarcity also severely limits agricultural productivity and food security among the rural population. More than one-third of Malawi's Gross Domestic Profit and 90% of its export revenue comes from its agriculture.
The Gender, Equity and Rural Employment Division at the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) reports that nearly 85% of the country's 15 million people live in rural areas, of which 52% are women. Furthermore, the Agriculture Infrastructure Support Project (AISP), reports that women comprise 70% of the agricultural labour force in Malawi.
Since women are the primary providers of water for both subsistence agriculture and domestic consumption, women play a central role in water resource management. This highlights the important relationship between gender, poverty, and sustainable development.
If meaningful socio-economic development is to take place in Malawi, the government not only needs to invest a lot more in rural areas, but, these investments need be gender inclusive especially when it comes to land and water.
At the 2012/2013, Budget Meeting and State of the Nation Address President Joyce Banda announced the long awaited roll out of a national irrigation programme called the Green Belt Initiative (GBI), first proposed by the late President Professor Bingu Wa Mutharika in 2008. In October 2012, President Banda finally launched GBI in Salima, one of the country's lakeshore districts.
The GBI is a large-scale irrigation scheme aims to realise a 'green revolution' by irrigating land within a radius of 20 kilometres from the shores of Lake Malawi, including perennial rivers, in the hopes to radically reduce the country's overdependence on an unpredictable rain-fed agriculture.
Although 20% of Malawi is covered by water, according to FAO, only 3% of the land is irrigated. The GBI aims to construct water canals and dams to facilitate not only irrigation, but also to serve as fishponds, and for hydroelectric power generation.
However, the GBI's success will depend on a number of factors especially on how it addresses women's concerns.
Fortunately, the GBI falls under the Malawi Agricultural Sector Wide Approach (ASWAP). Their Agricultural Development Agenda for 2011-2015 recognizes that women and youth are responsible for a large proportion of work in agriculture and the rural sector. It also acknowledges that due to a lack of access and control, female headed households are more likely to be food insecure than male headed ones.
The agenda states, "Gender equity in the ASWAP will be attained through targeting at least 50% women farmers in all interventions...and implementers of the ASWAP will therefore ensure that women and the youth have access to technologies, information, financial markets and participate in decision making processes".
This is a commendable piece of gender policy, which government and non-state actors behind the GBI, have to commit to for the betterment of rural women's lives. Although Banda's speech during the launch fell short of emphasising the need to mainstream gender in the implementation of the GBI, it was inspiring that she urged authorities to ensure that people in the catchment area should be the first beneficiaries.
In the same district of Salima, in the villages of Chimonjo and Chitala, the Centre for Community Organisation and Development (CCODE) trained illiterate rural women as 'solar engineers' to install and maintain solar lighting systems. Imagine the possibilities if these same women and more also managed the irrigation of their own farm lands. This gender inclusive approach to the GBI will also enhance Banda's Hunger and Poverty Reduction Initiative that plans to engage women in cash crop farming.
Once the government overcomes the administrative and economic problems slowing the roll out of the GBI and properly applies ASWAP's gender policy, this project could lead to long-term socio economic development, in which millions of Malawian women will have food and water security. Perhaps Malawi could be an inspiring case study when we observe World Water Day next year.
Willie Kanthenga is the Bureau Chief at Trans World Radio in Blantyre, Malawi. He writes in his personal capacity. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service that provides fresh views on everyday news.