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Beyond dangerous waters

One area in Machinga, Malawi, has spent almost 60 years without access to clean water, but all that is about to change.

It was a bright Wednesday morning, that day in early May. Men were grading their tobacco in readiness for the market. A few school-going children playing truant were roaming up and about Nkowa Village in Traditional Authority (T/A) Ngokwe in Machinga district, south east Malawi.

For the women, however, May 2, 2018 was a different day, a glorious day, a time for celebration. One of the women is 38-year-old Janet Black. She is fiercely protective of her children and she wants to see them through school. But she has previously faced challenges getting access to sources of water — just any source — especially during the dry season.

“We have had challenges accessing water. Our only reliable source of water has been this well,” says Black as she points at a pool of murky water.

“We would use the same source of water for drinking, washing our clothes and other household chores. During the dry season, we would wait here for hours on end for water. Our children would be late for classes because there would be no water for bathing,” Black says.

Diarrhoea, she adds, was so common especially among children in the area that it was almost endemic.

Marita Manyeu, vice chairperson of Nkowa water point committee, agrees with Black, lamenting the gruelling life they led in the area.

“The well usually dries up during the dry season, leaving us with no accessible source of water. It meant women would wake up as early as 2am to fetch water from a stream that is some distance away. It wasn’t healthy for our family life as our spouses suspected us of being up to no good,” says Manyeu as she chuckles uneasily.

For as long as people in the area can remember, the shallow well, with its milky water, has fed man and beast alike in the villages of Waiti, Sulumba, Makaka, Ojelo, Nkowa and Swalele, all in T/A Ngokwe.

The well is almost entirely bounded by thick, overgrown bushes, which make the whole surrounding area appear unwholesome. But they cannot clear the bushes around the well because they fear it will cave in and sedimentation from the fields would fill it up in no time. And they cannot dig it up either because its bottom is overlain with a rock.

“This well has been a disaster in waiting for a long time,” starts Group Village Headman Waiti, whose village borders Nkowa Village and had also been using the same shallow well.

“We have had so many cases of diarrhoea. I used to be a community health volunteer and I would usually obtain chlorine from the health centre to apply it in the well. Not everyone was comfortable with my intervention, though. Some people said the water smelled bad or tasted funny, so I stopped,” Waiti says.

DANGEROUS PURSUIT—Manyeu drinking untreated water from the well

But the case of people drinking from shallow wells is by no means unique to Nkowa, which is a stone’s throw away from Malawi’s boarder with Mozambique.

The situation was the same in Khanene Village in T/A Nyambi, Wadi Village in T/A Liwonde and Chaphuka Village in T/A Nkula — all in Machinga.

Change, however, is in the air in the four areas after Amref Health Africa in Malawi drilled a K4 million borehole in each of the four villages on behalf of WaterAid Malawi with financial support from United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DfID).

Amref Health Africa project officer Beatrice Kanjedza says the boreholes were drilled under the organisation’s Deliver Life project, whose goal is to contribute to the reduction of maternal and neonatal deaths through the promotion and sustainability of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6. SDG 6 calls for availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.

Kanjedza explains that the project’s impact areas are the surrounding villages of the selected health centres of Ngokwe, Mangamba, Mkwepere and Machinga, but what Amref Health Africa in Malawi noted was that water was in short supply in the areas.

“The water aspect [of WASH — water, sanitation and hygiene] was extremely low in the affected areas after we verified on the ground and consulted available data in partnership with Machinga District Council and area development committees,” Kanjedza says.

She adds that in the promotion of maternal and neonatal health, there is need for enough clean water, sanitation and hygiene.

“We focus on drilling of the boreholes in villages as well as the construction of sanitation facilities, placenta pits and incinerators and provision of water in health centres through solar powered boreholes,” Kanjedza says.

Village Headman Nkowa was on cloud nine when the borehole was handed over to his village on May 2, 2018.

“I came to this area in 1949 and the colonial government promised us a borehole. We have never had one and we have still been drinking from the same shallow well all this time. I’m grateful to Amref Health Africa and WaterAid for the borehole as it will save and serve a lot of lives,” Nkowa says.

Equally ecstatic is GVH Khanene who, however, laments the unforgiving terrain that prevents people in neighbouring villages from accessing the well in his village. He gestures expansively at the hills that flank his village and says:

“People from villages beyond are negotiating those hills to fetch water here because this is the only source of clean water for some distance. We were in the same situation because we would trek all the way to Mkwepere Health Centre to fetch water.”

But GVH Khanene and his subjects can afford a smile, so can the people of Wadi, Chaphuka and Nkowa who will no longer be dazed by the scorching heat as they travel over long distances in search of water; because all that is history.

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