By Andrew Brown, UNICEF Malawi
Following a good harvest this year, Malawi’s hunger crisis has eased for the time being. But it’s only a matter of time before the next drought or flood. This series looks at how communities are preparing themselves for future natural disasters.
It is early morning at Namera Primary School, in the countryside outside Blantyre. The school perches on an outcrop part way down a steep hillside between a mountain ridge and the plain below. The school yard is lit up in splashes of yellow sunlight. Some children are already gathered noisily here, while others make their way carefully up or down the hillside from nearby villages. This morning is special — every child carries with them a bundle of long grass stems, creating a moving sea of grass that sways above the heads of its small bearers.
This unusual sight is explained by the headmaster, George Kapalamula, who is smartly dressed in a suit and red sweater. The children are helping to construct a fence for a vegetable garden, in order to grow nutritious food for school meals. This is made possible by a solar powered water pump, installed by UNICEF with funding from the EU. The pump provides water for the school and nearby villages, and will now also be used to water the school garden.
“Before the solar powered pump, people drank water from open wells, which they shared with animals,” George explains. “This was not good for the health of our students. The children suffered from diarrhoea, and often missed school. Our teachers would also get sick and unable to teach classes.”
One of these students was Lucy Chalire. Now a confident and eloquent 13 year old, she emerges from a classroom in her blue and yellow school uniform, smiling broadly after completing her end of year maths exam. Above the classroom door and windows, a brightly painted mural shows scenes of village life and numbered groups of objects to help the children to practice counting. Lucy attends school every day and is third in her class of 45, but it wasn’t always this way.
“I used to drink water from the shallow wells,” Lucy explains. “I had diarrhoea so many times. I would stay at home for around two weeks until I got better. I missed a lot of lessons but I always tried to catch up by copying notes from my friends.”
Even when Lucy was well, water was a problem. She took turns with her mother walking 5km to collect water from the nearest standpipe. “There were so many people waiting at the well,” she says. “Sometimes I had to wait all day and would come home in the dark. I was afraid the village hooligans would attack me. Once I got tired and dropped the water bucket, and my mother scolded me for coming home without any water.”
During the regular droughts that hit the area, things got even worse for the family of maize farmers. “Last year we only harvested three and a half bags of maize,” Lucy says. “It’s not enough for a family of five. I tried not to skip class but I had nothing to eat. Going out was too much, I had no energy.”
Lucy’s mother, Benalita, is collecting water from the community tap in Kunja village, up the hill from the school. Once the bucket is full, she hands a crumpled 10 kwacha note to the pump attendant, balances the bucket on her head, and walks carefully up the dirt road to her house, taking care not to spill any water.
Back at home, Benalita sits in the shade outside a small mudbrick house. The family is clearly poor, and her faded blue vest is full of holes. She recalls the lowest point, when Lucy’s brother Andrew got very ill. “We took him to the health centre,” Benalita says. “They told me he had cholera. He stayed there for a week. I was so scared — I thought I was going to lose my son.”
Going deeper underground
In 2015, things began to look up for the village. UNICEF contractors arrived to install the solar powered water pump. “I was so excited when the pump came because I knew I could drink safe water,” Lucy remembers. “The whole community helped. People were digging trenches. My mother helped fetch water to make concrete for the pump house.”
Housed inside a locked concrete building, the solar powered pump does much more than a traditional water pump. It pumps water into a high tank, which holds 10,000 litres, then uses gravity to feed water through pipes to taps in multiple locations. As well as the school, it provides water for Lucy’s village Kunja and another nearby village Chamba. Pump operators come every day to test the water quality and check chlorine levels.
“We can drill much deeper for a solar-powered pump than a hand pump, which means we can reach water even during a drought when the water table drops,” UNICEF Malawi’s Chief of Water Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) Paulos Workneh comments. “It’s low maintenance and should last for at least 10 years. And solar power is cheaper, environment-friendly and more sustainable than relying on expensive diesel generators.”
Importantly, the pump is managed and maintained by the local community. There is a committee, Naima Safe Water Project Users, with members chosen from the villages. Tap attendants charge 10 kwacha for a bucket of water, raising around 40,000 kwacha per month. The committee uses this money to pay the tap attendants and pump operators, and to make basic repairs.
Committee chairman Abel Chimangeni has plans to make the pump even more sustainable. “We’ve been in touch with the local churches about fundraising for us,” he says. “We plan to plant a garden in the village using water from the pump and sell the produce. We’ll save the extra money in case we need to do any major repairs to the pump in future.”
During the drought, the committee gave the poorest families credit to buy water. They also educate local people on good sanitation and hygiene practices. There is a real sense of ownership in the community, and people proudly talk about “our pump”.
To be truly resilient, both infrastructure and communities need to be able to withstand shocks and natural disasters. Kunja village not only has a water pump that can keep working throughout droughts, it also has an educated and engaged community that understands the value of safe water, and is committed to protecting it. They have taken responsibility for this important lifeline.
Perhaps this is not surprising. The solar pump has transformed life in this remote rural community. The number of children at Namera Primary School has increased from 300 to 449 as a direct result of the pump. “The learners have water to drink and to wash their hands after using the toilet,” Headmaster Kapalamula says. “Our school grades have improved because of better attendance. We’re attracting better teachers and they stay for longer. Our school has become a desirable place to work, because of the pump.”
For families like Lucy’s the change has been even more profound. She hasn’t been sick once since the solar pump was installed. “It feels so good not to be ill,” she says. “And I don’t have to walk to the next village to get water. I’m doing much better in school. I would like to go on to secondary school and become a doctor to help my fellow Malawians.”
With continued access to safe water, Lucy has every chance of making her dream a reality.
This story first appeared in the Sunday Times