Every morning, Ethel James rises at 4 a.m. and walks an hour to the only functioning borehole in the neighbouring village. She returns home with just one bucket of water, which her five children use to get ready for school. Then she begins work on repairing the gravity-fed water scheme in her village.
Mrs. James could not wait for the existing system to be fixed, so she joined the team of villagers in the repair effort. The system consists of a pipeline connected to a reservoir. Taps are connected to the pipeline, but there is no running water in the village of Kwilasha, southern Malawi.
The water system fell into disrepair in the mid-1990s when the government could no longer maintain it. With the assistance of Water Aid Malawi, an international charity that helps people access safe drinking water and good sanitation, the community has taken over ownership of the scheme that covers Kwilasha and 13 surrounding villages.
Villagers organized themselves into clubs, with women assuming leadership roles. Women are also involved in laying pipes and digging trenches. Community members are replacing old pipes with new and larger ones and expanding the network to reach more people.
The nearest alternative source of water is a river just 10 minutes away. But the river is dry at this time of the year. Even during the rainy season, Mrs. James avoids the river because of the crocodiles. She explains how the villagers manage: “So we just dig wells in the village. But that is also a problem because cholera becomes rampant since the water is unsafe. Now that it is the dry season, the wells no longer have water, so we rely on the borehole.”
Water Aid Malawi and the Machinga District council are now training the community in leadership, project management, fundraising, conservation and sanitation. Once the repairs to the water system are completed, it is expected to serve about 45,000 people, three times more than it served in the 1990s.
Mrs. James says that repairing the water system will make a difference to the lives of the women in her village, as they are the ones who suffer most during water shortages. She continues, “Now we’re learning every skill so that we [can] maintain the scheme ourselves and ensure a reliable water supply. Our work does not stop at digging trenches; we also join men in laying pipes and fixing the facilities.”
Monalisa Nkhonjera is program officer responsible for communication at Water Aid Malawi. She says the involvement of women in “rough and dirty” jobs such as fixing pipes means they can maintain the scheme themselves. They will not need to rely on their husbands or others for help.
Each household contributes the equivalent of 13 cents a month to buy accessories and construct new water points. The community has organized a water user association. The association has a bank account with money that is set aside for the day when Water Aid Malawi hands over the facilities to the community.
Mrs. James thinks the water supply scheme will not collapse again, mostly because women are no longer spectators in the project. She now knows how to repair a tap and where to buy spare parts for the system. She says, “We are doing all we can to learn everything, so that we are able to maintain it ourselves even when the men are not there. An efficient water supply will help us look after our families well.”