Monday, 22 August 2016

Writing about water

I've been back in Malawi for just over twenty four hours. As is my usual practice, the first thing I do is go and buy a newspaper. I am a news addict: I must know what is going on in the world. However, not just 'the world' but Malawi in particular. Reading the press enables me to gain at least some idea of the main concerns of its people - or at least of the literate part of the population.

Today, as usual, I bought two newspapers: The Daily Times and The Nation. What struck me at once is how many stories there are about water. No, not dramatic stories about floods and drought, though those were happening only a few months ago, but stories about the everyday challenges, and indeed, drudgery associated with water, the kind of challenges and drudgery that people in my country - even the very poorest - rarely if ever experience.

The first story from the Daily Times describes the Country Director for the NGO (non-governmental organisation) Water Aid handing over 'water kiosks' (collection points for safe water) to a village head in Kasungu, to the north of Malawi. She pointed out that 1.7 million people, out of a population of 17 million, did not have access to drinkable water. Some writers put the figure as high as 25%, if you take into account other deficiencies in the water supply system, such as the actual quantity, not just quality, available.

Where a water supply exists, it may be contaminated by human or animal waste, for only a minority of families have adequate sanitation - usually access to a pit latrine. Forget about flush toilets: they are completely impractical in a country with too little water to drink and for growing crops. Except of course for people like me who stay in in hotels. The result is typhoid or cholera, both endemic to Malawi including around the lake where most visitors go.

The photo above is almost certainly the sort of installation that Water Aid's Director was talking about. It is on the main street of Chembe, the village next to Lake Malawi at Cape Maclear. Like many of the wells in that area it was provided by an NGO. This is a particularly splendid well, for it has a tap. Usually wells have pumps, for which you need a significant amount of muscle power. The well to the right belongs to the primary school but the local community are also allowed to use it, as you can see in the photo below it.

Another disease contracted from flies breeding in contaminated water is trachoma, an infection of the eyes which often leads to blindness. Eyelashes turn inwards, people rub their eyes, the resultant scarring causes blindness. The disease passes from person to person via dirty hands. Infection rates are dramatically improved by simple measures such as washing children's faces and proper disposal of human and animal waste. All this needs water. 

The UK charity Sightsavers, supported by the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust is working in Kenya, Malawi and Uganda. The newspaper said that Sightsavers would work to improve access to safe water sources and sanitation, educate people in the community about good hygiene, distribute antibiotics and carry out surgery. In the same newspaper The Hunger Project Malawi, an NGO which receives financial support from the Netherlands, had placed a tender for drilling nine boreholes. Properly drilled boreholes draw water from deep below the contaminated soil.

When Stuart and I first visited Malawi in October 2012, we were most impressed by the fact the roads were not lined by women and children trudging along for mile after mile with yellow water cans on their heads, as in Uganda where we were living at the time.

Actually, I think that we got that wrong. Despite the fact that there seem to be more village wells in accessible places in Malawi, I think there are still major difficulties in finding and transporting water away from the main roads. In fact, I have seen small children filling up the family's buckets from a roadside gutter on the outskirts of Blantyre, Malawi's biggest and most developed city. Here on the left is a young girl who has filled up her bucket from the school well and is trudging towards her village with it as she probably does twice a day, before and after school.

The girls in this community day secondary school on the right are rather more fortunate. They are filling up the buckets at the school pump after the end of the school day. All they need to do now is carry them a couple of hundred yards to the school building where they will be ready for the next day's learners.

Sometimes the queues at the village well are so long that women may spend an hour or two just waiting in line, which may provide for pleasant social interaction but also keeps women away from their work. Women produce most of the country's food. Alternatively, they may leave
their buckets to wait for them and hope nobody takes their place. More often they send their children instead, a common reason for children being late or absent from school. Can you imagine how much water is needed for a large Malawian family?

And when there is drought it is not uncommon in remote areas for women to queue overnight or for at least four or five hours at a time. Given the choice between spending almost all day collecting safe water or getting it from a nearby stagnant pond, what would you do? And not you, the privileged European, but you if you were the poor mother of a large family who is already exhausted from eating only one meal per day?

But lack of water isn't just a rural problem. Over the last few weeks even the capital has been suffering under a water shortage. Blantyre and the south have had insufficient water for the best part of a year at least. In Lilongwe over the last few weeks, the water has been turned off for two or three hours per day, and so has the electricity. There is a connection. Lilongwe is dependent on hydroelectric power, most of which comes from the Shire River which runs out of Lake Malawi. The lake is down to about two thirds capacity. Blantyre has had power cuts for over a year. Lilongwe is also suffering them now. Indeed, last time I was over here, in June, I sometimes spent part of the working day in a dark windowless office, running my laptop on its battery and typing by the light of a torch. It's not so bad in the hotel, for most reasonable hotels have generators.

Power cuts can be pretty unpleasant for ordinary families in Scotland. In our country, interruptions to the power supply tend to be caused by storms or snow bringing down power lines. However, in Malawi it is not so much families which suffer. After all, only about 9% of households across the country have electricity anyway, and only 1% in rural area. Electricity, however, is essential for industrial production. Malawi has precious little manufacturing industry. What it has is therefore very precious. All the more difficult then, when there are electricity outages.

In hospitals, there is often not enough fuel to run the emergency generators. Some local hospitals and health care centres may not even have generators and yet it is in settings such as these that most babies are delivered. During such blackouts, in Malawi it is not uncommon for surgical and other procedures to be carried out by the light of a mobile phone.

I said at the beginning that this post would be about ordinary routine things, not about dramatic disasters like floods or droughts. Water shortages do not make life impossible, they just make it very very difficult. And it is the women and children who bear the brunt.

You may also be interested in these posts from our Uganda blog

Bogs, bugs and boreholes

The water of life....


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