By Fabio Meier
Due to technical problems, the water drainage in Malawi is not as good as one is led to believe. The attempt to solve it with new technologies has failed so far because the real problem lies much deeper.
In this day and age, every new technology seems to bring with it the hope of improvements that will replace an old technology and make our everyday lives better. This may be true in some most cases, but not for water pumps in Malawi. Why can an old technology like a hand pump still stand the test of time, what are the real problems of water points in Malawi and who is to blame?
Malawi is a landlocked country in southeastern Africa. It is known for its warm hospitality, beautiful landscapes, and rich wildlife. Despite grappling with a range of socio-economic hurdles, Malawi is making a lot of progress towards improving the lives of its citizens and developing its infrastructure.
Water supply is one such infrastructure. According to BaseFlow team leader Muthi Nhlema, a researcher in the field with over 17 years of experience in NGO management and leadership, Malawi has made significant progress in achieving good water coverage, with an impressive 89% water coverage in 2017, the second highest in the Southern African Community.
The country's success in water coverage is largely attributed to the use of hand pump technology. Even with the major challenge to standardize this technology due to the presence of around 100 NGOs in the country, each with its preferred method of implementation, it has been possible to introduce a standard for water pumps: The so-called “Mjigo” or “Afridev”. It has a lifespan of about 15 years, all parts can be produced locally, and it is relatively easy to install.
Despite all its advantages, the pump has been criticized for being an old and archaic technology and that it should be replaced by a newer one.
But what are the alternatives? One solution presented was the “PlayPump”. A technology where children play on a rotary hub that drives a water pump. Although seeming like a good idea, it failed due to high costs, complex maintenance, reliance on child labour and safety issues. Eventually it was banned, removed, and replaced by the hand pump again.
Recently, a new technology has been introduced: The solar-powered pump. While this technology is promising, it remains to be seen if it will be as successful as its predecessor. Current data shows that the hand pump has an 86% success rate, compared to the new pump’s 68% success rate, once again putting the hand-pump ahead of other technologies.
Many factors come into play, when deciding which technology to use. But the debate about technology is the wrong discussion. The real problem lies elsewhere.
The Real Problem
Malawi's water pump debate is misguided. Today, Malawi has achieved a water coverage of almost a 100% with over one hundred thousand water points, but 20 to 25 percent of these are non-functional. Approximately between $22 to $66 millions are wasted due to nonfunctional water points. It is not about the technology itself; it is about sustaining the technology. To achieve this, five factors need to be addressed:
There is no systematic maintenance system in place and with many water pumps needing to be repaired in the near future, there is a high chance that the rate of non-functional water pumps will rise further. Action is needed as soon as possible to avoid degradation of the water supply.
The coordination among the different NGOs is mostly non-existent. As a result, water points are being built right next to each other even though both are functioning properly.
III. Water availability
Malawi is struggling with drying soil, the main reason for it being climate change and environmental degradation. Ground water levels are falling, meaning companies have to drill deeper and deeper to find water. This increases the cost of boreholes and water points more and more.
This is particularly problematic, as the population of Malawi is growing rapidly, increasing the need for fresh water.
IV. Adherence to standards
Many water points do not meet standards and are doomed to fail in the short term because they were not built well in the first place. Boreholes get commissioned with not being tested properly. The companies building the water points are not held accountable. Worse still, borehole reports are not available or false.
Some water points are being built only on the basis of a political decision, not due to technical reasons, and not where it is most needed or where it is technically most advantageous to build.
Many community members are promised water access that cannot be delivered, as it is technically not feasible.
You might think it would be trivial by just fixing the factors causing the problem. But it is not. According to Muthi Nhlemas, the key points for improvement are a focus on technology maintenance, an innovative maintenance system with incentives, improved coordination, the enforcement of standards and an accountability mechanism for all parties involved, and the promotion of science-based policymaking.
As this is a multi-faceted problem with multiple stakeholders, each with their own interests, it is impossible to solve it in a short period of time. But small steps forward will eventually lead to a sustainable, fully functioning water supply in Malawi.