Malawi: Local management of water system eases water woes (IPS)

| November 1, 2010

Download this story

If you walk the narrow lanes between the mud-brick houses, then turn past the toilet with the battered cardboard walls, you will emerge into a small neat yard. Women and girls fill plastic buckets from five water taps sticking out of a concrete wall. This is the scene at a water kiosk run by the Nkolokoti-Kachere Water Users Association, in Blantyre, Malawi.

“The [water users] association has made a big difference here,” says Fatima Misoya, a resident and water vendor at the kiosk. “We no longer get water from dirty streams.”

About half of the water kiosks in this urban area used to be managed by community, religious or political party leaders. Gloria Matchowa is the water association’s administrator. She says that local leaders just pocketed the money residents paid for water. They rarely paid the bills owed to the Blantyre Water Board. This resulted in frequent disconnections, which sometimes lasted for years.

Ms. Matchowa explains that the water board constructed the kiosks because many people cannot afford personal taps. But, she says, “ … the kiosks were being too badly run to serve the intended purpose.”

In January 2009, the kiosks owed Blantyre Water Board 11,000 American dollars in unpaid bills. Over a third of the kiosks were in disrepair or had been disconnected. Many of the 90,000 local residents  struggled to access clean water.

In February 2009, officials from the Blantyre Water Board, Blantyre City Council and township residents formed the Nkolokoti-Kachere Water Users Association.

The association is a formally-registered co-operative. Members of its board are elected from the community. They serve for two years. All the association members live in the community. Ms. Matchowa says this promotes a sense of ownership of the facilities.

The association took over all aspects of managing the kiosks. Sydney Balakasi inspects 19 kiosks every morning. He collects money from the previous day’s sales, and checks the cash received against the amount of water sold. He notes any supply problems. The association’s water sellers live close to the water points. They keep watch over the kiosks to avoid vandalism. 

In the past, the cost of water varied between four and six cents for 20 litres. The association now charges two cents per 20 litres. Even at this price, it took only three months for the association to clear their old debts and repair all the broken kiosks. Ms. Matchowa explains, “With good management, we don’t have to sell at high rates to make good returns.”

WaterAid Malawi introduced the concept of water users associations to Malawi. The co-operatives aim to recover costs and turn a profit while meeting the need for clean water.

Amos Chigwenembe is responsible for policy at WaterAid. He says kiosks may not be the ideal way to supply water. But, if managed efficiently, they are useful in unplanned settlements.

The association’s major difficulty is the unreliable water supply from the water board. The infrastructure is old and often breaks down. There have been no major investments for over 40 years. Catherine Chilemba represents the water board. She says, “The design capacity of our production system is far below today’s requirements.”

But the Nkolokoti-Kachere Water Users Association is full of hope. Gloria Matchowa believes that coming improvements at the water board will help their business grow. For now, she says, “We can help ease the poverty through giving potable water at [an] affordable price.”