Rethinking Water Security in Malawi

By Claudia Mazzurco

Malawi is one of the few countries that succeeded in meeting the MDG targets, yet it still suffers from a water security problem. There is more to Malawi's water insecurity issue than meets the eye.


Picture yourself taking a sip of water, only to find that it makes you sick. This is an everyday reality for many people in rural Malawi, where water supply systems are dominated by decentralized water points consisting of boreholes fitted with handpumps. A closer look at the systems used, management schemes, local tariffs, and global agendas is needed. Biases in our perspectives often go unnoticed

Poor Borehole Construction

Functionality surveys were conducted in Southern region of Malawi, examining poorly functioning water supply points (i.e. boreholes fitted with handpumps). Usually, the malfunctions resulting in abandoned infrastructure are attributed to poor operation and maintenance (O&M) during the water point’s lifetime. But the problem starts way before. Borehole construction is sub-standard. This is traced back to a lack of supervision and transparency in both the planning and the implementation phase. Therefore, improvements in planning and testing practices are urgently needed. It is our responsibility as engineers to make sure that the water points comply with standards before commissioning them.


Unfortunately, not only do boreholes malfunction, but the water pumped from functional water points is also frequently brackish and thus non-potable. Now, why is that?


The Salinity Problem

Groundwater salinity arises because of increased number of hand-pumped boreholes for community use. This is largely attributed to lack of coordination in the installation and operation of the water points, as non-governmental organizations (NGOs) work independently of one another. The result is that their efforts backfire. These water points thus malfunction, leading to their abandonment. Unfortunately, communities either resolve to just accept that the water is salty and continue using the same water points, or they settle for previously abandoned water points that have acute pathogen risks. The community-based management model (CBM) is ineffective in solving the issue of redundant water points, as it has a limited capacity for strategic response. Mismanagement and lack of coordination is, again, at the heart of Malawi’s struggle with subpar, hand-pumped groundwater supply.  


At this point, I stop and wonder why the investments flowing from international organizations have not solved the problem. We need to know where the money is going. This requires investment transparency and coordination on the Malawian end–the government especially, but also the community. Unfortunately, the government of Malawi is reluctant to share this information. Further, diverse reports to NGOs have been found not to reflect the truth. So, poor coordination has a substantial impact on the status quo. Here, we can identify the main problem we should focus on. As Muthi Nhlema mentioned in his presentation, it is not about the most sustainable technology, more about the best possible way to sustain a technology.


Source: Pump Aid


Further Financial Mismanagement

Financial mismanagement also extends to the rural water supply tariffs in Malawi. Local tariffs constitute the primary financial mechanism using which rural water supplies are funded. An investigation was conducted to study “Affordability” and “Operation and Maintenance Costs”, which are the main factors considered by rural water service providers upon setting these tariffs. The major finding was quite surprising and rather counter-intuitive. Tariffs that are collected less frequently were found to correlate with O&M costs, whereas ones that are collected at more frequent intervals related more closely to affordability considerations. This demonstrates that there is a fundamental misunderstanding of the dynamics of the system, which adds to the rampant management in the sector. 


Achieving a balance between O&M Costs and affordability considerations is crucial to achieve the 2030 agenda. For this, an innovation in the O&M systems is necessary. 


We Need to Change Our Focus

Global agendas have been part of the reason sustainable management of water supply has not been achieved. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) focused on the coverage of targets. The result of these well-intentioned formulations has proven to be harmful in the long run. The strive to increase coverage led to adopting a “quantity over quality” approach. Between the years 2000 and 2015, non-piped, unimproved water supply increased from 49% to 75%, whereas piped, improved water supply decreased from 12% to 10%. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which have replaced MDGs, need to instead focus on quality infrastructure and proactive monitoring of assets, to ensure that the disadvantaged groups have access to sustainable supplies, rather than just any supplies.  


What You See as Opposed to What You Think You See

We commit the “Sacred Community Fallacy”, which envisions people suffering from lack of access to clean water as victims of external forces exclusively. 


We fail to see. As Nhlema proposed, poverty can be an asset. Moreover, people are used to the technology and subsequently resist changes to their daily lives. The financial benefits that the “Sacred Community Fallacy” provides together with lack of investment tracking and social resistance form a substantial barrier to water security in Malawi. 


We as future engineers, policymakers, and global actors, must be aware of the assumptions we are making before devising action plans and setting agendas. The mentality of the communities facing water insecurity is one of the major overlooked hurdles to satisfying SDG 6, namely Clean Water and Sanitation. Effort must be made to radically increase the local government’s transparency in its interactions with its own citizens and with international organizations.