Why water is becoming Malawi’s most precious resource

A woman drawing water from an unprotected source for drinking in Blantyre Rural © UNICEF Malawi/2016/ Sebastian Rich

By Paulos Workneh, Chief of WASH, UNICEF Malawi

Every year on 22 March, the world at large and Malawi commemorate World Water Day. This year’s theme is about ‘waste water reuse for sustainable development’. This is an important issue but for me an equally important question is ‘do we really have enough fresh water to waste?’

This question will become even more urgent by the day as fresh water is becoming increasingly scarce. Let’s think about the last few years. In other parts of the world, we have seen water becoming a jealously guarded resource — more precious than money — with different groups fighting over access. Some even predict that wars will be fought over water in the future.

Water is increasingly becoming a scare resource in various ways such as availability, accessibility, quantity and quality. In recent times, we have heard calls for deep well drilling. Shallow wells are not viable any longer. They are becoming more salty in certain areas such as the Lower Shire valley. We have also seen cases of drying boreholes and others experiencing low yields.

In Malawi, groundwater resources are estimated to make up only 2 percent of the nationally available total water resource, yet, at least 76 percent of the total population and 86 percent of the rural population rely on this water for their day to day domestic use.

Malawi in the rainy season. The country has highest rate of of deforestation in the region, mainly happening in water catchment areas 
© UNICEF Malawi/2017/ Andrew Brown

During the El Nino induced drought in Malawi last year, UNICEF witnessed many shallow boreholes drying up across the country. In some cases, ground water was not available at all after several drilling trials. It is now becoming a grim reality that as a country we are in the grip of an ongoing water crisis. The expectation that ‘if you are drilling, you will get water’, is no longer true. Water is becoming increasing elusive and difficult to find.

Surface water and dams are also drying up well before the next rainy season. In the not so distant past, Malawi had many year-round rivers and springs. Villages were comfortably accessing them, even if the water was not always clean. Today most rivers are seasonal, muddy and polluted. Deforestation has contributed to this, with the trees that once kept water trapped in the soil now gone.

This lack of water may seem strange in a country named after a massive lake. Lake Malawi is a vast freshwater resource, yet the catchment area and tributaries are not adequately conserved or used sustainably. As a result, the lake’s water level in 2016 was the lowest for the past 15 years. The situation is similar for the other natural and man-made water bodies across the country.

The frequent interruptions of tap water in big towns such as Lilongwe, Blantyre and Mzuzu is largely attributable to dwindling water reserves in the dams. As a result, water boards are struggling to provide adequate and uninterrupted water to children and families.

These are all indications that water scarcity is a growing problem that is here to stay unless concrete action is taken urgently. We need reflection and vision in order to address the situation before the challenges become entrenched and out of control. There will be a public outcry if we can’t begin to do something about it now.

Malawi in the dry season. Deforestation is rampant due to high population growth, with people encroaching on catchment areas to farm
© UNICEF Malawi/2017/ Andrew Brown

So what can be done? Human activities need to be geared towards mitigating climatic factors and ensuring sustainable use of our water resources.

We need concerted efforts to conserve Malawi’s existing water catchment areas and regenerate the badly affected ones. These are areas of land where surface water from rain converges upon another body of water, such as a river, lake or reservoir. Tree planning, terracing and small, temporary dams in these areas are key to retaining water. Existing laws and systems need to be strengthened and enforced to ensure integrated water-resources management for food production, drinking and other needs.

Environmentally sensitive water-harvesting approaches using dams of different sizes are required. Water Boards in cities and rural areas need to have strategic plans to deal with the growing need for water from a growing population. We need to look at all these issues through the lens of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, where no one is left behind.

The Malawi Government has made a good start by putting in place a number of important policies, strategies and regulatory frameworks. However, a lot remains to be done in terms of enforcing these measures. The Government institutions charged with protecting water resources need to be strengthened, both in terms of human capacity and financial resources. They should have the teeth to enforce national water policies.

Sometimes in development, people think any problem can be solved with more money, but with water this is definitely not the case. We can spend all the money we like on building wells, dams and water pipes, but if there is no water to flow through them, it will make no difference. In Malawi, we need to start viewing water as the precious resource that it is. We need to value trees, not just as sources of wood or shade, but as vital natural allies for water management.

It is only by valuing and protecting our natural resources that we will be able to ensure that all Malawi’s children have the safe water they need, when they need it.

Children at Namaera Primary School in Blantyre drinking water from a tap on the school grounds. UNICEF installed a solar powered pump in the village that gives water to the school and surrounding communities © UNICEF Malawi/2016/ Sebastian Rich

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