Solar power has brought water, light and hope to a rural health centre in Nkhata Bay West which serves 30 000 people scattered in 59 villages.
People go to clinics to get healed, but people around Nthungwa Health Centre say the facility in the thick of Viphya Forest was a breeding ground of infectious diseases due to lack of water.
Nthungwa, situated 40 kilometre (km) north of Mzuzu Central Hospital and 87 km north of Nkhata Bay District Hospital, mirrors the situation faced by many healthcare facilities in rural areas where 80 percent of Malawians live.
The life-saving facility on the border between Nkhata Bay and Mzimba has been operating without water for over five years since gravity-fed taps ran dry. This left patients, guardians and pregnant women walking long distances to draw water from unprotected sources. Some patients and guardians could spend days without a bath, the locals say.
“Instead of being a place where patients would get healed, the health centre became a hub of infectious diseases,” says clinician-in-charge Raphael Chambuluka.
Not any longer. This has become history since United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) installed a K37 million solar-powered water supply system at the health centre. The system comprises submersible water pumps powered by a 340-kilowatt power system.
“The environment is now conducive to provision of healthcare. We have a treated water source throughout the day. We are really enjoying our work unlike in the past,” says Chambuluka.
The worst hit wing by the water crisis was the maternity ward, which requires steady water supply to sustain sanitation and hygiene necessary to avoid bacterial infections which kill newborns and mothers.
We found Nolenji Mphande from Katazuka Village in Mzimba waiting to give birth to her first child at Nthungwa Health Centre. She says the solar-powered water taps have restored smiles among people who rely on the facility for their healthcare needs.
“Guardians no longer walk long distances to fetch water. Since I came here three weeks ago, the water taps have been running flawlessly. We thank Unicef for giving us safe drinking water. This is good. We live in rural areas, but we have a right to safe water,” she says.
To Unicef, safe water, sanitation and hygiene practices are catalysts for the survival of children and women. Apart from disease prevention, improved water supply reduces the burden women and children endure carrying buckets of water over long distances.
According to Nkhata Bay district director of health and social services Dr Mwatikonda Mbendera, there is need to install solar-powered water systems in all health facilities without access to safe water.
“Unlike gravity-fed water systems which dry up during the dry season, solar-powered water supply runs throughout the year. With such water systems in all health centres in the country, there will no longer be water problems,” says Mbendera.
Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Six is about ensuring everyone has access to safe water.
However, almost a tenth of the country’s population still draws drinking water from unprotected sources, including wells, springs and streams. This puts them at risk of contracting diarrhoea, cholera and other waterborne diseases.
According to Minister of Health Atupele Muluzi, infections associated with water, sanitation and hygiene account for over half of the out-patients treated in the country’s health centres.
In deforested mountainous parts of Nkhata Bay, the challenge of drilling boreholes remains immense. The boreholes and gravity-fed water systems have been hit by environmental degradation and water stress. Unicef estimates that about 30 percent of boreholes and 50 percent of gravity-fed water schemes in Malawi are no longer functioning.
According to Nkhata Bay district water development officer Alex Mwakikunga, the council plans to install solar-powered water systems at Kambuni Health Centre this year.
“Next year, we will reach out to Chitheka and Chesamu health centres. It is the wish of the council to have solar-powered water supply in all health centres,” he says. n