Since taps in Balaka ran dry six months ago, women and girls wake up as early as 2am and walk long distances doing the work of pipes: bringing water where it is needed most.
But the water crisis caused by the drying up of Mpira Dam due to deforestation and drought has challenged cultural rigidities that discourage men from drawing water.
In the dry town, sights of men waiting to fill buckets stuck in lengthy queues are common.
At a crowded public tap, Yohane Likoyo unpacked the cultural shift: “It somehow started with jealousy as women were leaving home early in the morning and returning late at night. We thought they were cheating on us.
“When we joined them, we discovered the water problems are actually so grave that if we leave it to women alone, we won’t eat, we won’t go to work on time, children will be late for school and we’ll all be losers.”
Although the initial motive was demeaning, Water for People executive director Kate Harawa commends the men for setting precedents which may become acceptable in the long run.
“This is a blessing in disguise; some negative things bring positive change. After all, culture can change. Most of the gender roles are influenced by cultural information,” she said in an interview.
Harawa hopes the men are not motivated by money as they find it easy to do the so-called women’s roles for some pay.
“They cook and do housekeeping in hotels, not cleaning their homes…Men need to start to view women as equal partners, but it should start with how we raise children. Women and men have a role to play to model our girls and boys on how they value each other.”
At an overwhelmed borehole near Balaka Market, Maston Grant, who runs a restaurant, urged all men to join the hunt for water to lessen the hardship women face as some families stack up to 35 buckets in a queue. In fact, families with many buckets fill all at once without regard for the next person.
“Before the crisis, drawing water for the restaurant was my wife’s responsibility. Now, I do it while she draws water for home use,” he said.
Grant’s family and restaurant once used 20 buckets a day, but now use just 10.
“Filling one is survival of the fittest,” he says. “The rule is simple: first come, first served.”
In the scrambles, men are not allowed to skip the line as common courtesy dictates in maternity wings of State-run health centres and maize mills.
Grant admittedly has no problem with equal treatment as long as his eatery has water.
“You cannot clean utensils or cook without water. People need drinking water after meals. Without water, customers will shun my business, fearing infections caused by unsafe water and poor hygiene,” he bemoaned.
According to Balaka District Council and the District Civil Society Network, the dry taps puts the town, which relies on water rations from Southern Region Water Board (SRWB) bowsers, at risk of a cholera outbreak as some families now drink water from polluted wells and streams.
We visited three boreholes at Mangelengere, Mthandizi and Transformer where men were seen filling buckets to ensure their homes have safe water.
Water has become a precious commodity and every household pays K300 monthly for repairs of the boreholes they once used for free.
The hardships have taught men and women to save water.
“When people say water is life, it means that everyone needs water to stay alive. Why then should it be solely women’s responsibility to fetch this precious commodity?” asked Anita Phiri, a mother of three.
The shutdown of Mpira Dam—like the drying up of Kasungu Dam and Lake Chilwa last year—illustrate how climate change and loss of forest cover slow progress towards achieving Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) six to ensure everyone uses safe water.
As wetlands dry, some Balaka and Kasungu residents have slid back to join 10 percent of the country’s population which lacks access to potable water.
This calls for ambitious policies and enforcement to protect water sources, says Harawa.
Concurring, Fatima Pitala says the dry taps “gathering spiders web” remind everyone to conserve water sources and surrounding areas.
She states: “Everyday, business and livelihoods are disrupted as men and women spend hours waiting for water in boreholes that frequently run dry because they can’t cope anymore.
“We need to conserve water and the environment to avoid such crises. So, men should also participate in conserving the environment to save the whole town and reduce the suffering of women.”n