Part 1 of 3: Water Access in Malawi

This is the first in a three part series of blogs which will introduce the work I will be doing in Malawi this summer. As you may already know I will be working on a water access project in Chikwawa District in Southern Malawi. This first post will give a background of the water sector in Malawi, next post I will introduce EWBs work in the sector and the last post will outline what I will be working on.

When reading these posts keep in mind I am presenting what I have read and learned from conversations with volunteers who have worked in the sector in Malawi and that Africa as a continent and the countries within it are very diverse so I may not be giving a totally representative viewpoint on the water sector in Africa or Malawi as a whole. With that in mind, let’s dig in!

Where water comes from in Malawi?

An example of a pumping borehole

In Malawi, approximately 20% of the population lives in cities and 80% of the population lives in rural areas. In cities, water is sourced from underground aquifers, lakes or springs then treated and distributed through pipes. In rural areas, water can be accessed from a number of different sources; most commonly from boreholes (60 m deep holes), shallow wells, open water or in mountainous regions from gravity fed systems that transport spring water through pipes to villages. Some of these are sources of clean and safe drinking water while others can become environments which are contaminated by fecal bacteria which can lead to increased diarrheal diseases. There is a great need to ensure that Malawians have access to clean and safe drinking water; how we ensure that that is done is where is becomes tricky and will be the topic of future posts

Who is responsible for water and sanitation in Malawi?

In Malawi, there are 28 districts (a.k.a. provinces) which are governed by district governments. Through decentralization of the national Malawian government, resources and decision making power in the water sector is being transferred to these district governments. This means that it is the district government’s responsibility to know the status of water infrastructure in their area and coordinate the NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) in the district.

Hmmm, where do these NGOs come in if the district government is responsible? Well, usually in Malawi ‘water projects’, which include new construction and rehabilitation of water infrastructure, are actually implemented by NGOs, and international organizations like the African Development Bank. This means that there are essentially three main categories of players in the water sector in Malawi: big international donors, the Malawian governments and the NGOs that implement the projects. You can imagine why there may be some challenges to ensuring that sustainable supplies of clean and safe drinking water are accessible to rural Malawians.

What does this look like for Malawians?

In Malawi, like many other African countries, it is the job of women and children to fetch water. The burden can be a very tiring and time consuming one if water points are not near to where you live. Diarrheal diseases, especially in children, are still prevalent and easily preventable. It’s clear that water access is still a significant issue in Malawi.

Furthermore, at any given time, it is estimated that 30% of the water points (places you can access clean and safe drinking water) in Malawi are non functional. This is infuriating when you consider that it costs about $10, 000 to drill and install a borehole while it may cost a few dollars for a spare part to repair a well. Sustainability of donor financed water infrastructure is notoriously bad because new infrastructure is ‘sexy;’ everyone loves to hear that new wells were installed in villages and rural Africans now have access to water. What no one wants to hear is that the same effect may have been accomplished for significantly less by maintaining existing wells.

Sum Up

There is a great need to improve water access in Malawi, but there are also many challenges in the current system to achieving this. The good news is over the next 5 years the Malawian government expects to receive significant donor investment in water infrastructure; with that in mind the next post will cover what EWB is doing to improve water access in Malawi.

Thanks for reading!


3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Cathy Sandy on May 9, 2010 at 3:58 pm

    Will keep reading


  2. Posted by Tom Hansen on May 11, 2010 at 11:30 pm


    I hope your enjoying Malawi and are soaking up lots of ML ideas for the MoM (month of Malawi). I have officially decided to call it that.

    Related to your post: it seems that Western materialism may be influencing our aide decisions. Why fix an OLD well when we can get a NEW one? – just a thought.

    Excited to read more.


  3. Posted by iskandar Nugroho on April 9, 2011 at 11:08 am



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