Water for expanding cities

As the dry season sets in, Blantyre City residents are increasingly waking up to dry taps or weak trickles.

Angela Domwe, from Chilomoni Township, usually wakes up around midnight to replenish her buckets before pressure drops.

Nguludi Water Treatment Plant at a glance

“This water stress is giving us sleepless nights,” she says. “We wake up around 2am to draw water,” says the mother-of-two.

For years, Blantyre Water Board (BWB) has been blaming the situation on inadequate rains, ailing power supply, old facilities that frequently break down, environmental degradation and climate change.

Population pressure

However, Domwe has reached a certainty that the water supply system is not expanding at the same pace as the city’s population.

“The taps gush in the middle of the night and pressure wanes as more people wake up and get ready for a new day. The taps will be dry by the time you want to take a shower at 6am. This water system can no longer cope with population pressure,” she explains.

According to the 2018 Census, 5.1 percent of Malawi’s population of 17.6 million live in the country’s most dense city.

The population has surged by more than a third of the 2008 count—13 million.

“The growth rate is typical of a country with high fertility rate and suggestive of rapid population growth. Now, we have more people sharing the same resources that were serving fewer 10 years ago,” said United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) resident representative Young Hong in an interview after the unveiling of the new figures.

Blantyre, whose population has leapt from 649 000 to 800 300 since 2008, is the country’s most populated city after the capital, Lilongwe, which is home to nearly one million people.

The city of 191 700 households still relies on the water BWB pumps from Walke’s Ferry on the hugely silted Shire River. The level of the country’s largest river keeps falling as drought becomes frequent and prolonged.

Huge demand

The present water supply does not match the rising demand. According to BWB, both visitors and residents in Blantyre require 123 000 cubic metres per day, but the water board supplies about 101 000 cubic metres.

In 2017, BWB embarked on a $20 million project to glide water from Mulanje Mountain to the eastern side of the city. The pipeline from the country’s tallest mountain is expected to be complete this month.

“At this stage, we are remaining with minor works to wind up the project. I think by October, we should have water in Blantyre flowing,” says engineer Daniel Chaweza, chief executive of BWB.

The engineer says works have delayed due to heavy rains that caused severe floods in March.

“The pipeline was inaccessible as most areas were waterlogged. As such, works had to stop for a month or so,” he explains.

The new plant will trim the current deficit of 22 000 cubic metres a day and the cost of providing water to the growing city.

“This is bringing an additional 20 000 cubic metres a day. However, we are looking at other projects that we can do in the next two or three years to add up to our production to ensure that Blantyre has adequate water supply,” says Chaweza.

BWB only needs to pump water 11 kilometres from Nguludi Treatment Plant to the eastern side of Blantyre, just a quarter of the distance from Walker’s Ferry.

The new pipeline will supply Bangwe, Mpingwe, BCA Hill, Chigumula and nearby residential areas.

To Minister of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development KondwaniNankhumwa, such investments accelerate the race to ensure everyone uses safe water.

According to his ministry, 85 percent of the country’s population uses safe water. BWB reports that access in the city is higher—93 percent.

Chaweza expects the project to ramp up the figures to 98, universal access Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) six envisions.

Age-old problem

In September, Nankhumwa toured the project. He expects the flow from Mulanje to drastically reduce age-old water shortages in the city.

He explains: “From time immemorial, we have had water challenges in Blantyre. As such, government made a decision to bring additional water to Blantyre residents.

“After going through the project, I have been assured that any day in October, we might have the commissioning of the project and people in Blantyre will start enjoying water from Mulanje.”

Nankhumwa warns against wanton deforestation and dumping of waste along waterways.

To keep more populated cities in the wake of changing climate and water pollution, there are plans to lift from Lake Malawi in Salima to Lilongwe just as Northern Region Water Board has long-term plans to gravitate water from Lambilambi near the Elephant Rock in Mzuzu to keep the southern part of Mzuzu City supplied.

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