The significance of water for human beings across the world is usually summarised in the phrase “water is life”.
This popular phrase is usually interpreted to mean that water is necessary for biological survival, growth and flourishing.
However, access to water is not actually a big deal. The big deal is where the life-sustaining liquid for drinking and domestic use is drawn from and how safe and potable it is for human consumption.
For people of Traditional Authority (T/A) Mkhumba in Phalombe District, until three years ago, they accessed their water from natural springs in nearby hills because they had no piped water and available boreholes were constantly breaking down.
Apart from walking long distances to fetch the water, they also had to go to the hills late in the night and return at dawn, sometimes after dawn. Yet, the water they were drawing was not potable at all.
Martha Frank, a 19-year-old mother of one from Matekenya Village, T/A Mkhumba, recalls how accessing water was a challenge for her and everyone in her community.
“I was going to the hill around midnight to avoid the long queues at dawn. From midnight, I was returning home around eight in the morning,” says Frank.
“As if the long distance and the time spent at the hill to access the water was not enough, the water from the hill could not be kept for more than two days because just after a day, it used to develop maggots.”
Twenty-year-old Jessie Mukavila, also from Matekenya Village, says although the water developed maggots barely a day after storing it, the people had no luxury to throw it away because it was a scarce commodity.
“We were still drinking and using the same water for domestic chores. We could not afford to throw it away after all the trouble. We could not do otherwise. That was the only available water,” says Mukavila.
She says stomachaches and diarrhoea were a norm for them. Almost every week, each household was registering a case or two of waterborne diseases, and children were the most vulnerable.
While women and girls are usually the worst-affected when it comes to accessing water, men were also victims.
One of the men in Matekenya Village, Byson Makoka, laments how they were not getting enough sleep as they were required to escort the women up the hills.
“Instead of sleeping, we were escorting our women to the hills to fetch water. We were spending the whole night at the hills and were returning home in the morning after they had fetched the water,” he says.
Noting the challenges people in T/A Mkhumba were facing, Malawi Red Cross Society (MRCS) embarked on a project to bring change.
The organisation, with a K560 million funding from the Netherlands Red Cross, started a water, sanitation and hygiene (Wash) project to mitigate diarrhoea and other water-borne diseases in the area.
Today, almost three years since the project rolled out, the story has changed. Over 53 000 people in T/A Mkhumba have improved safe water sources, in schools, health centres and their villages.
Mary Ngulube, MRCS deputy president, says the project mainly focused on four areas, namely provision of improved water sources; promotion of hygiene and sanitation services; provision of diarrhoea drugs for early treatment and capacity building for beneficiaries.
She says: “Through the provision of improved water sources, we rehabilitated and upgraded Phalombe Minor Gravity Water fed system to support about 20 communities with 158 taps.
“We also rehabilitated 45 boreholes and provided 2 200 water filters to some households and schools that still had no access to safe water sources.”
Phalombe district commissioner (DC) Harry Phiri says previously, government did a small water scheme to supply people in the district with potable water from the mountain through use of gravity.
However, he says, due to population growth and vandalism of equipment, the scheme did not meet its intended purpose.
Phiri says waterborne diseases were rampant in the district, causing drugs in health facilities to run out of stock in short periods of time.
“Considering the challenges people were facing, we approached Malawi Red Cross Society to bail us out and it did. Now, all problems are history,” he says, adding “Apart from cutting long walks in search of water for villagers, sanitation and hygiene at our two health centres have also improved with the water supply.”