Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?
Access to safe and affordable drinking water remains a big problem in Malawi especially in the rural areas where almost 84% of the country’s population is found, according to the Population Reference Bureau. Although 95% of the urban inhabitants in Malawi may claim to have access to clean and improved water sources, reports by WHO indicate that more than 42% of the population in rural areas still rely on shallow, hand-dug wells or unprotected surface water bodies that are contaminated with bacteria, parasites, or toxic chemicals for household use and consumption. Poor quality water from these sources has serious negative implications on people’s health and may result in increased prevalence of water-borne diseases such as cholera, diarrhea, typhoid, and dysentery. These diseases are fatal and account for high death rates in rural communities especially in rainy seasons where the risk of water contamination is at the highest. Statistics indicate that 80% of illnesses in Malawi and other developing countries are related to problems in water and sanitation and that diarrhea, mostly caused from consumption of contaminated drinking water, accounts for 15% of all deaths in under-five children and also 8% of all deaths across the population in Sub-Saharan Africa (WHO). Use of unsafe stagnant water surface sources also encourages the spread of opportunistic skin diseases such as scabies and also stimulates the breeding of mosquitoes that spread malaria, another fatal disease accounting for more than 23% of all deaths in Malawi (World Life Expectancy Report).
Another angle of the problem stems from lack of proper sanitation facilities both for household use and also in the primary schools in most rural communities. Statistics indicate that more than 40% of the rural population do not have access to decent sanitation facilities (and resort to open defecation in the bushes, rivers and around their houses) as compared to only about 10% in the urban areas. Even where sanitation facilities are available, people may not use them efficiently as they lack education and understanding of the importance of having decent sanitation facilities and how this helps in the prevention of waterborne diseases and outbreaks. Similarly, lack of proper sanitation facilities in primary schools force learners to use the bushes around them for disposal of body waste. Open defecation pollutes the environment and accelerates the rate of outbreaks for waterborne diseases especially during rainy season and this also negatively affects the rate of absenteeism in classes. Further, the rate of drop outs, especially for the girl child is also high in schools where there are no proper sanitation facilities.
Although Malawi has significant groundwater resources, lack of infrastructure in the rural parts of the country makes it difficult for rural communities to have easy access to this water in an affordable way. The government’s efforts to provide decent water and sanitation facilities are frustrated by other socio-economic challenges like the rapidly growing population and high levels of illiteracy in the rural areas. Although strategies are made to reach out to rural communities with water and sanitation interventions, high levels of corruption and lack of efficiency in government structures result into failure in implementation. Further, weak economic performance and heavy donor dependence means that the government lacks capacity to implement whatever policies and strategies aimed to resolve the problem. As a result, for example, the pupil/toilet ratio in rural primary schools is still as high as 131:1 although the benchmark for the government is actually 12:1 for boys and 10:1 for girls (Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality).
Other non-governmental organizations and development partners have also tried to intervene by providing water and sanitation to rural communities in Malawi. For instance, UNICEF, WHO, Médecins Sans Frontières, Action Aid and the National Red-Cross Society formed a partnership to provide boreholes and sanitation facilities to schools in rural areas. However, the top-down donor driven approach used results in detachment of the community members from the whole process which undermines community ownership crucial for sustainability of the facilities in terms of maintenance. Some organizations however have dedicated their efforts to treating the symptoms of the problem without actually addressing the underlying cause. For example, Red-Cross Society sets up temporary cholera clinics in health centers in rural areas during cholera outbreaks in rainy seasons. Although this is a helpful intervention, it does not resolve the underlying problem of access to clean water and sanitation facilities, such that the solution is temporal and targeted to the symptom and not the actual problem.
Clearly, the problems in water and sanitation in rural communities aggravate the prevalence of poverty, food insecurity and other social problems. People are concerned and spend most of their time and resources in managing the ill effects of waterborne and other diseases that are spread through the use of unsafe drinking water and indecent sanitation facilities. Nonetheless, this high level of attention and of negative effects on their lives has not yet been followed by an active role in coming up with their own solutions to address and manage these problems. Furthermore, this passivity reflects also in the mindset of these communities, since they tend to ignore that many of the other pertinent social problems affecting their lives could be resolved or attenuated by properly managing their resources and improving their health, and, vice-versa, that by being more healthy, they can better engage in solving all the other problems they have. This then culminates into a vicious cycle of poverty and undignified living standards.
Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!
Access to safe and affordable drinking water is a very serious problem in the rural areas of Malawi. Charles is providing access to clean water and decent sanitation facilities to rural areas as an entry point to engage people in community development initiatives. Through Freshwater Malawi, Charles drills boreholes in villages and schools to provide safe and clean water for household use so that people no longer rely on contaminated water sources that expose them to fatal waterborne diseases like cholera, typhoid fever and dysentery. Villagers are stimulated to assess their social environment to identify water and sanitation problems themselves. The boreholes are drilled using the simplest raw materials most of which can be sourced locally from the communities, like sand, cement, water, bricks and labor. The community does a self-assessment on what they will be able to source from amongst themselves and contribute to the development and Freshwater provides the rest of the materials including technical expertise. This builds community ownership for the borehole, an aspect which ensures commitment from the whole village towards its sustainability and maintenance, and is concretized by local water supply governance bodies that Charles helps establish.
However, Charles realized that only providing clean water to the communities will not necessarily solve the problem of persistent outbreaks of waterborne diseases if decent sanitation facilities are not available. As such, he conducts campaigns to create awareness of the importance of decent sanitation facilities on top of clean water. Through these campaigns, willing communities approach Freshwater to seek assistance on how to introduce safe sanitation practices throughout the village. Freshwater then assists in building simple and low cost but sustainable pit latrines according to the needs and capabilities of the individual households. The latrines are built in a way that allows the ‘waste’ to be harvested, treated and be used as manure which then helps to boost produce in the kitchen gardens. Further, Freshwater encourages the communities to use surplus income from the kitchen gardens to engage in other community development projects for the village in line with the needs of each respective community.
Through this model, Freshwater has reached out to over 750,000 people with clean water and sanitation services through over 3,000 boreholes and 5,000 pit latrines provided to rural communities within and around Blantyre district. Most of the villages he works, with especially in Blantyre rural area, have reported zero deaths from cholera over the past five years. Further, most communities have gone beyond worrying about the ill effects of water and sanitation and now spend their time engaging in community development initiatives. Freshwater now works in six districts in the Southern region of Malawi and two in the central region, and is planning to scale regionally into neighboring countries.