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Living without water


Though 20 per cent of Malawi is covered in water, the majority of rural residents don't have access to it. Photo by Jenny Vaughan.  

By Amy LeBlanc    

I loathe the groaning echo that comes from my shower on the mornings we have no water. Having a shower is no longer predictable or convenient; the process depends on whether there is water or not. Last weekend, the lack of water reached a breaking point—I hadn’t showered in more than two days because there was simply no water and we had used up all of the reserve water we had stored in buckets and jugs.

It’s the hot, dry season in Malawi, which means droughts can last up to six months and water shortages happen every few days, often lasting for days at a time. To help solve the issue, the Blantyre Water Board announced it will start a new project with the Hygiene Village Project, Water for People and the European Union to minimize water shortages and increase access to safe water in Malawi.

Unfortunately, the lack of water I complain about is an everyday reality for most Malawians, particularly during the dry season, which lasts from from August to October. This is surprising given that Malawi is considered to be relatively rich in water resources compared to most countries. Approximately 20 per cent of Malawi’s total area is covered by surface water and the country is home to Lake Malawi, one of the largest fresh water sources in Africa.

The problem lies in Malawi’s rapid urbanization—the Blantyre Water Board admits it doesn’t have the equipment or resources to deal with its quickly growing population. According to the United Nations, Malawi is the fastest urbanizing country in the world and is struggling to deal with a growing urban population—which is estimated to mushroom to 11 million people in the next few years.

At a press conference in Blantyre last month, representatives from the Blantyre Water Board announced they are struggling to service 36,000 people from one functional reservoir that stores water. This is cause for concern considering that UN-HABITAT estimates that by 2015 about 44 per cent of Malawians will live in urban areas such as Blantyre.

The influx of people from the rural areas means there are not enough working pipelines to transmit water to all Malawi’s major cities. As a result, the Blantyre Water Board announced that it will continue to ration water to various areas, cutting off water systematically to several regions while also servicing pipelines, which will cause further shortages.

One area that will be affected the most is Ndirande, one of the poorest and most heavily populated areas in Blantyre. In this and other hilly neighbourhoods, pipelines are badly in need of repair and water is more difficult to pump.

And access to water in rural areas is worse than in cities. WaterAid America estimates that only 57 per cent of the rural population has access to safe water, compared to 90 per cent in urban areas. Lack of safe water means preventable diseases such as malaria and cholera spread rapidly in the rural areas. These diseases contribute to Malawi having one of the highest infant mortality rates and one of the lowest life expectancies in the world.

Born and raised in Canada, I can’t say that I have ever questioned whether there would be water when I turned on the tap. But even while I’m grumbling about my shower routine in Malawi, I’m grateful I have access to safe water—albeit sporadically—unlike the thousands of Malawians living in rural areas who do not.

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Africa Without Maps

  • There's so much more to Africa than predictable headlines about war, famine and AIDS. From Ghanaian beauty pageants to music in Malawi, Africa Without Maps provides a rare glimpse of life in Africa from Journalists for Human Rights interns on the ground.

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