Too close but very far

They say water is life, but in Alufandika Village  in the southern Malawi district of Chikhwawa, the terminology has taken a different twist. They have water, but it does not provide life, everything around it is dead.

A group of women carrying buckets to fetch water bypass the village borehole on their way to Mikango Village, an additional two-kilometre walk.

Then in less than five minutes, another group of young girls walk back from the well with buckets on their heads. They have just made one of the trips to collect water from a neighbouring village.

Such is the plight of women in this small village, two-kilometres from the road that leads to Nchalo from Blantyre, Malawi’s commercial city.

Despite the village being a few kilometres from the vast Shire River, they do not have access to potable water.

During the day, the village is deserted as all the women and children have to walk some treacherous two kilometres in the Chikhwawa heat to draw water. They make these trips several times. Some of the children go with their mothers so that they can take advantage and bath there.

The villagers curse a day, in May 2008, when they were given  a borehole drilled just  10 metres away from the nearest house.

“Akanangosiya osatipatsa [they should have just let us be],” said one woman as she went on her way to fetch the scarce resource.

Today, instead of the borehole becoming the centre of activity, it has become the most deserted part of the village because of the quality of water that comes out of it.

“This borehole is a curse to us,” laments village headman Alufandika.

“It is salty and you cannot drink it,” he says, adding that even goats and dogs do not drink from it.

“The salty water cannot be used for cleaning, metal plates washed with this water develop holes in them (corrode). If you make the mistake to bath this water, you will have itchy skin throughout the day. The hair becomes too dry if washed in this water and you would not want to wash your clothes with this water for they will become too dry and spoilt,” says Alufandika.

The only thing that seems to thrive is the desert-like vegetation and the local wild berries, masau.

He said although the water is used for non-conventional activities such as moulding bricks, it was discovered that the bricks are not durable and when used to make a bathroom, goats chew the bricks because of the salty taste.,” said Alufandika gesturing to a bathroom that had collapsed.

In another village, a stone’s throw from the Shire, the situation is the same. Although their water is not as salty as that in Alufandika Village, they also travel some distance to get the life-saving liquid.

“Tikapita ku Shire, ang’ona amatiluma [If we go to the Shire, we are attacked by crocodiles],” said group village head Dziwazina.

She, however, noted that Illovo Sugar Company has allowed the villagers to tap fresh water from one of its reservoirs in the sugar cane fields which is near the village.

“We just need pipes and we can do that,” said Dziwazina.

But is it that simple?

In a project jointly run by Centre for Children Affairs in Chikhwawa and Kalondolondo programme which was taking stock of water service delivery in Chikhwawa District, it was discovered that most boreholes were sunk without following set district water maps.

“Out of 39 boreholes that we checked, only 27 are functioning. Most people travel up to five kilometres to get good water. We discovered that there are 19 boreholes servicing over 1 000 villagers,” said Centre for Children’s Affairs Malawi executive director Moses Devlin Busher.

He said 85 percent of the boreholes are located far from communities, and in turn, most communities shun them and prefer to get water from the river.

He said because of the topography of Chikhwawa, many boreholes had too much alkalinity (salt) that at times it was proportional to 50kg salt put in a 20-litre pail of water.

“The solution is to follow district water mapping, dig deep boreholes and get approval from the district council. Most people donate things which they cannot use themselves. The boreholes would work for a week and dry up,” said Busher.

According to Kalondolondo programme manager  Jephter Mwanza, Kalondolondo is an advocacy and community empowerment programme started in 2008. “It gives people a voice to state their issues on service delivery.”

While taking stock is the first step, it is apparent that populations near the Shire River do not have it rosy when it comes to access to potable water.

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