Water Week Raises Questions
One of the adjectives going with Lake Malawi is the word “fresh.” For many years, I used the word without much thought to it until August this year when I came across the phrase “Sick Water”. I then started wondering if at all Malawi water is really fresh. And if it is, how good it is for anyone to use? This begged the question, “Of what quality is the water Malawians generally use?”
Water Quality has been at the centre of debate at the World Water Week in Sweden’s capital, Stockholm. Delegates from both developed and developing countries have deliberated on the quality of the water their people use. Interestingly those from developed countries seem to worry more about waste water while the developing countries wish all their people had access to water and basic sanitation as per the Millennium Development Goal target 7.
A panellist from the UK James Winpenny sent delegates into some laughter when he said that most of the water people drink in the UK would have been through five or six other stomachs. He argued that there are huge costs and benefits of waste water management. He recalled that over a century earlier (1858), the smell from the Thames was so bad that to “protect MPs during debates, the windows of the Houses of Parliament had to be covered with sheets soaked in chloride of lime.” The cost had been four cholera epidemics, between 1831 and 1866, when 36,000 Londoners died.
Reports indicate that 1.1 billion people around the world still lack access to improved water supply and more than 2.6 billion people lack access to improved sanitation today. This includes Sub-Saharan African countries like Malawi.
In an interview in Lilongwe, Water Aid Country Representative Robert Kampala noted that Malawi while some strides have been made in ensuring that at least about 70 percent and of the population has access to safe water, Malawi still needs more work in improving the quality of water.
“As a country we are still lagging behind in access to improved sanitation facilities. We are working with partners to improve the situation. And that is where our focus is. We also have a large proportion of existing facilities which are not functioning very well. We also have issues of inequity, distribution, functionality and water resource management which impacts the existing and future facilities.” Said Kampala.
Malawi’s status of improved sanitation is not impressive at all as only 65 percent of urban residents and 46 percent or rural residents respectively have latrines and flush toilets, one wonders where almost half of that rural population goes to answer the call of nature. This has an effect on the quality of water.
Growing up in rural highland areas of Rumphi, I never worried about accessing clean water. I grew up in a family with good pit latrines. In fact, as a mark of boyhood and good Christian at church, I had to make sure that our homestead and the church has one. Sadly in the areas, there were some people who could just go into the bush to answer the call of nature. Streams of fresh water were also many. In fact I grew up not using any piped water till I went to secondary school. I was however shocked (with due respect to all residents) when I went to the hilly, rocky or sandy Rumphi lakesides to hear that some people never had toilets as they used the lake for own relief! Doesn’t this affect the fresh water lake?
The UN defines water quality as the ‘‘physical, chemical, and biological characteristics of water necessary to sustain desired water uses.’’ Experts say that deterioration of water quality occurs when waste or waste water is discharged directly into the environment, from where it finds its way into surface or groundwater. This is the result of overloaded, outdated, or even nonexistent municipal and industrial water treatment or sanitation infrastructures. But what are the city councils and water boards doing about this in Malawi?
It appears to me that priority is often on providing access to water rather worrying about how to manage waste water. After all you can only manage what you have. The cries for water in Malawi’s cities and villages are just too huge. Blantyre City in particular is frustrating.
This year, the country witnessed one of the highest cholera incidents registering over 180 deaths from the disease. Couldn’t such lives have been saved if the water was ok? Globally, this number contributed to the 2 million deaths a year attributable to unsafe water, sanitation and hygiene. “Exposure to unsafe water can also lead to increased cases of cancer, tooth/ skeletal damage and schistosomiasis.” So the experts say.
In its recent report titled Sick Water? The Central Role of waste water management in sustainable development, The UN-Habitat and UNEP point a devastating impact of what is termed Sick Water. “Globally, two million tons of sewage, industrial and agricultural waste is discharged into the world’s waterways and at least 1.8 million children under five years-old die every year from water related disease, or one every 20 seconds.” Reads part of the report.
Malaria is one of the two main killers apart from HIV and AIDS in Africa. Its spread is also linked to water. Isn’t it preventable through proper water treatment?
Interacting with people from both developed and developing countries, I got the impression that it is African and Asians mostly that have problems with access to water and basic sanitation. Delegates from the developed world kept mentioning that it is in Africa and Asia that mostly people suffer from water-related illnesses!
In addition, it got clearer at this 20th gathering the annual water event that urbanisation, agriculture, industry and climate change have been identified as the issues exerting pressure on both quantity and quality of water resources in the world.
The delegates hoped to respond to escalating water scarcity, worsening water quality and increasing demand for clean water.
While various global, regional and local institutions are doing everything they can to address water access and quality issues, there are still many problems which need to be addressed. I do see the biggest problem is in the attitude people have towards water.
Some people see water a political tool-using it as a campaign tool. “We will drill boreholes for you, vote for us,” and “we constructed 30 boreholes in this area so we deserve your vote.” Even if the boreholes stoped working three years ago, they still count them as working boreholes. Appointments to the Water Boards are political. How do you expect some person leader with no background in water issues be a member or chairperson of the Water authority?
I know that water wears the face of a woman all over the world. They use it more than men. I will not have to explain how! But who runs the water projects? It is men. I should state my disappointment at the visible lack of many women in the panels at the World Water Week.
Dealing with water challenges needs a multi-faceted approach. Water is all things-political, health, economic, social, rights, an MDG, gender, spiritual, academic issue, etc.
Can you imagine that Cambodia’s Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority has received the Stockholm Industry Water Award for its world class performance in water supply and self-efficiency? The authority improved the resident’s access to safe water from 33 percent in 1993 to almost 100 percent currently. Its Director General Ek Sonn Chan said in an interview that among others, their secret was good governance, tariff revision and taking water as a priority.
Asked if the city’s residents appreciate their effort, he said that they are happy as evidenced through all their customers’ ability to pay all their water bills. I wish there was such a prize for one or all of Malawi’s Water Boards.
It will take Malawians and especially the government to see access to water and sanitation as right if we are celebrate the fresh water that we so claim to have in Africa’s third largest lake.
The theme for this year’s UN World Water Week is The Water Quality Challenge-Prevention, Wise Use and Abatement.