Are high-tech water stations the way to reach Malawi’s sustainable water goal?

By Janina Johner

Source: Shutterstock


Safe water access for everybody remains a challenge in Malawi. Muthi Nhlema from BASEflow , an organisation whose mission it is to ensure safe water access for everybody, shed light on this topic.


The Afridev hand pump seems like a fool proof tool which is actually quite outdated. This pump is widely spread in rural Malawi and was one of the key gadgets which enabled the country to hit the UN Millenium Development Goal  for water. However, the critics of this pump want to turn away from old-fashioned hand pumps and invest in more modern water access technologies. These technologies use taps instead of pumps and are sometimes even solar-powered. In this blog post, I want to explain some of the difficulties Malawi has to face in terms of water accessibility and why technology that is further developed will not necessarily help fix those issues. 


This simple question illustrates the problem perfectly: if you had to choose a water station for your village, would you rather pick an old-fashioned hand pump or a tap that you can open easily? You would probably choose the tap as it is more convenient than a hand pump. However, these taps are more likely to break and are also more complicated to fix compared to the hand pump. This information would probably make you choose the hand pump for the water station in your village, even though it is less convenient. Whichever water station you choose, just keep in mind that the tools need to be maintained and, if broken, they need to be fixed. 


“Even though taps seem more comfortable to use than hand pumps, they are more likely to run dry.”

Source: Shutterstock

One pump does not come alone…

The lack of accountability for organisations drilling boreholes is not limited to low-quality construction, but rather unreasonable contracts and arrangements lead to absurd scenarios, as the following example shows. According to Nhlema, in Malawi, you can find communities with two water access points within a few meters distance.  This is not due to these neighbourhoods’ need for more water than one water hole can generate, but rather because the organisations are getting paid for drilling holes and not for building sustainable water access points (to read more on this study click here). The sustainable answer to this issue would be better cooperation, meaning that the organisations coordinate their work better in order to avoid unnecessary water holes. This is crucial to make sure that every community gets access to water. 


The key to sustainable water access

To illustrate the importance of better coordination and accountability, I want you to imagine how much money is wasted every year on water access points that are either non-functional or redundant. An incredible amount of about 54 million US$  is yearly wasted on installing hand pumps that fail within five years after installation.


As mentioned before, reaching the goal of sustainable water access for everybody is not primarily about complicated technologies. This is easily seen by the example of the hand pumps and the taps, with the former being more robust, which is a key factor for rural areas.  However, the important questions and problems that need to be answered and solved are not concerned with taps or pumps. These crucial questions are about the fundament on which water access points are built, and about demanding accountability and coordination from the organisations. 


One of the key messages that I have taken away from the talk with Nhlema is that there is no need for further developed technologies, as the problem lies within the basics. Organisations like BASEflow do an extremely important job to tackle these issues. Hence, supporting their work is crucial in gaining sustainable water access for everyone.