Sorry, there’s no water.

This image is slightly misleading - I apologise -  as it's from rural Chembe/Cape MacClear, not Lilongwe. In my defense, it's a nice pic.

This image is slightly misleading – I apologise – as it’s from rural Chembe/Cape MacClear, not Lilongwe. In my defense, it’s a nice pic.

March 22 is World Water Day.

Today I had lunch at the Game Complex, probably Lilongwe’s largest and best known mall. Having spent the morning at the market, I was keen to wash my hands before lunch. Easier said than done – there was no water. The proprietor of the up(per)-scale restaurant said this had been going on for a few days. Thankfully, she let me use the kitchen sink while she poured water on my hands from a jug.

#Whitepersonproblem perhaps, but it’s indicative of a wider problem.

Access to water in Lilongwe is a real and daily problem particularly for the city’s poorer residents. While tap water is reasonably potable, accessing it is another matter. 25% of the city is not reticulated, meaning the water grid does not reach it. And while it is claimed that over 90% of the city’s population is able to access water within a 30 minute walk, walking that 30 minutes to a communal water kiosk does not guarantee that the kiosk is open or operational, and also gives no indication of how long the women – because it is predominantly women (and children) who fetch water – have to wait to be served, nor whether or not they are paying a fair price for the water. And come on, would you want to walk with a 20L+ jerry can for half an hour? In fact, I reckon the walk back is likely to be significantly longer.

This is a real problem as the majority of the city’s population accesses water through water kiosks. And they don’t use much of it; according to the Lilongwe City Development Strategy (of 2009) 81% of the city’s population make use of 5% of the city’s potable water. Why? Mainly because the remaining 19% have direct water connections.

Some deep inequities here.

WaterAid has done some good work in building more water kiosks, enhancing Lilongwe Water Board’s management of water kiosks, as well as promoting community-run water kiosks. Still, there are poor areas in Lilongwe that remain without access. One of them is Kasengere, a community I visited last year with the Lilongwe Urban Poor Peoples’ Network (LUPPEN). Fortunately for the community, LUPPEN is helping them call for improved access to water; to date this has resulted in existing boreholes being repaired, and the authorities committing to building a water kiosk in the community.

An even wider problem however is availability of water itself. Lilongwe City Council has estimated water loss at 44%, mainly due to siltation of dams and along water pipes. Given the city’s fast population growth rate, there are real concerns regarding the future of water supply in the city.

So happy World Water Day. Let’s hope some serious efforts to harvest rain water are made soon.

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