North’s water crisis in perspective

For the first time since she settled in Mchengautuwa Township in Mzuzu in 2012, Witness Mkandawire is waking up at 2am everyday to draw potable water.

Since October 2015, water has been a problem in Mzuzu city. Hardly a week passes without the taps going dry. When the water comes, it is in the morning hours or during the night when demand for the resource is low.

By 2am, every day, Mkandawire says she makes sure she is at Target Secondary School communal tap to draw water.

“If we fail to get water during morning hours, then it is automatic that we will have no potable water the whole day. We are then forced to draw water from unprotected wells for drinking. Our main source of water is a stream that separates Mchengautuwa and Sonda locations,” she explains, adding: “We have been in this situation for two months now. Life has come to a standstill because we spend most of our time searching for water.”

NRWB engineer Cathy  Mwafulirwa (R) explaining how the Lunyangwa water  treatment point works
NRWB engineer Cathy Mwafulirwa (R) explaining how the Lunyangwa water
treatment point works

Mkandawire says water from the communal tap costs her K800 per month. With the crisis, she says she is digging deep into her pockets as they sometimes access the water from privately owned wells.

“I am spending over K800 per month because I spend K150 per bucket of water from wells. My family is forced to drink this water even though we are pretty sure that it is not safe,” she says.

Most of the wells in Mchengautuwa are owned by individuals. No one regulates them, which puts the users at risk of waterborne diseases.

“There are times when we are forced to drink from the streams, mostly when we don’t have money to buy from wells,” she explains.

Mchengautuwa residents are not the only ones affected by the water crisis. It is the same story in other townships in the city.

Northern Region Water Board (NRWB) acting chief executive officer Mwiza Mtawali admits the crisis and says townships such as Masasa, Hilltop, SOS, Area 4, some hilly areas in Nkhorongo and Area 1B have been affected.

He says the crisis is due to issues of topography and a weak booster system at Kaning’ina to pump water to a storage tank at Lusangazi, which supplies most of the affected areas.

In his words, a bigger crisis is awaiting Mzuzu mid-February next year as its sole water source, Lunyangwa Dam, is drying up. It has already lost half of its water.

“The water we have will service Mzuzu for three and a half months. If we don’t receive enough rains by mid-February, then we are in for disaster,” warns Mtawali.

Mzuzu is one of the fastest growing cities in Malawi with a 4.4 percent population growth rate. Such a rapid population growth has had a negative impact on water services provided by NRWB. The city’s current demand for potable water is around 6.5 million cubic metres per year and by 2011 the demand had exceeded the maximum supply from the dam which is at 6 million cubic metres.

“On a daily basis, Mzuzu is drawing 22 260 cubic metres from the dam, almost twice the dam’s daily capacity. This year, the dam did not spill due to, among other reasons, the increasing demand,” says Mtawali.

In addition, unaccounted for water (which is treated but lost) remains high at around 37 percent, meaning that the board is able to effectively deliver 63 percent of the already scarce resource.

The crisis is not in Mzuzu City alone, but in almost all the districts that get water from NRWB.

“In Mzimba, water supply is not adequate due to the inadequacy of the treatment plant and the distribution system. The water demand is much higher than the capacity of the supply system forcing the board to ration water most of the times,” says Mtawali.

At least $48 million (about K28.8 billion) is needed to address the current water challenges in the district. In Karonga, Mtawali says water supply does not meet the current demand.

“While the treatment plant, donated by Paladin Africa, was designed to cater for the year 2015 demand, the rest of the infrastructure, which was constructed earlier, was designed for 2010 demand. Maintaining the high-tech filter membrane plant is very expensive and suppliers for materials are very uncooperative.

“As such, some of the existing customers receive water only during some hours of the day. In addition, newly developed areas are not supplied with potable water as there is no water supply infrastructure,” he explains.

This has forced the board to construct parallel pressure filters at a cost of K500 million to help improve the plant’s operations and ensure Karonga has sustained potable water.

He adds that in Nkhata Bay and Rumphi, residents are not able to get water supply for 24 hours in a day because the current system was designed for the population of 2010. He says the treatment plants and distribution networks in the two districts need upgrading and expansion.

The board, however, is not idle. Designs for new dams for Mzuzu and Mzimba have been prepared.

Mtawali says the board has also gone into partnership with Plan International Malawi for a water demand management project to mitigate water shortages.

However, for the people of Mchengautuwa, such plans and interventions are meaningless.They are spending weeks without potable water and some have resorted to unsafe water.n

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