Clean Water for All in Malawi

A borehole for a water well being drilled in Chiringa, Malawi.

Clean drinking water is a basic necessity for all. Most citizens in developed countries find it through a simple twist of the tap.

For almost a third of people throughout the world, however, clean drinking water is not guaranteed, according the United Nations (UN).

This is why access to clean water for all is one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) the UN aims to achieve by 2030.

It’s a goal staff and students in the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Strathclyde are striving towards in Malawi, as part of the Scottish Government’s Climate Justice Fund Water Futures Programme.

Led by Strathclyde, through Programme Director Professor Bob Kalin, and including Scottish Water and the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA), the aim of the Programme is to support the Government of Malawi to provide clean drinking water for its citizens.

In 2000 it was estimated that nearly 2.5 million people in Malawi relied on inadequate drinking water supplies. In one of the poorest districts, Chikwawa, an estimated 55 percent of residents were without access to safe drinking water.

Team Scotland

Since 2011 Bob and his team have been locating and evaluating, first in Chikwawa and now across the whole country, every single rural water supply asset.

To date they have evaluated the water supplies for around four million people. By this time next year that figure should stand at 10 million.

“This is a programme, not a project,” says Bob. “We’re not just going in to fix a particular problem or single issue and then leaving.

We’re here for the longer term working on a whole range of activities in partnership with the Government of Malawi, working with nearly 400 staff across the country. And it’s not just Strathclyde – it’s Team Scotland.”

So far, the team has mapped around 63,000 water points and 135,000 nearby sanitation points, recording not just the location of each but also a wealth of additional data: the type of pump, who installed it, the date of installation, its proximity to latrines, rubbish dumps and cess pits, how much it draws and whether or not it’s actually working.

It’s these latter bits of information which are particularly crucial for the government to know if they’re to form a true picture of the country’s water assets and adopt a suitable strategy to achieve the goal of clean water for all.

It’s even more important when the data shows just 52% of all the water points recorded are actually working properly.

Bob says: “Many water boreholes and pumps have been drilled and installed by well-meaning charities. But goodwill, and the donations from benefactors in countries like the UK, is not enough.

“Well-located, sustainable water points require expert knowledge of local hydrogeology. Holes need to be drilled in the right places to access underground aquifers. And they need to be located well away from, or protected against, sources of contamination, like latrines and rubbish dumps.”

Professor Robert Kalin on site during borehole drilling in Malawi.

It’s notable that 100 percent of the boreholes and water pumps installed through the Scottish Government project are fully-functional.

“It’s not about pointing fingers,” says Bob. “It’s about recognising the problems; that maybe you’re part of the problem and asking how we can support sector change. It’s important for the donor community to get behind this Programme. If you’re part of the system, be part of the change.

“We’re showing how donors can really work to achieve sustainable investments. We welcome charities seeking out guidance on their investments in Malawi to ensure they are sustainable, like The Rotary Club of Ayr. They called us as they wanted our advice on how they could make sure their money was making a real and sustainable difference.

“Often infrastructure isn’t installed to high-enough standards, or isn’t maintained properly and falls into disrepair. We came across one pump that hadn’t worked for three years because a rubber seal had failed. But a replacement was available in a shop a few hundred metres down the road.

“What we’ve seen is the traditional community-based model failing, because extracting and managing water isn’t that simple. It needs proper technical knowledge and supervision, as well as a good understanding of the management of water resources as a whole.

It involves looking at the bigger picture, how other resources and stakeholders interact and whether there’s a wider network in place to support local assets.

“This means balancing the use of surface water sources, such as reservoirs and rivers, with groundwater aquifers according to their viability, being careful to avoid exhausting either.”

Water crisis

The importance of this approach is underlined by an ongoing water crisis in the Balaka District that has left more than 380,000 people with little access to safe water.

The crisis arose after water levels at the Mpira damn, which has a capacity of 3.72 million cubic metres, dropped significantly in July 2018 following a lack of adequate rainfall during the previous rainy season.

Since then the Government of Malawi has been supplying water via emergency trucks but a longer-term solution to such crises will be required as part of its overall water management strategy.

To help tackle the current crisis, Bob and the team are drilling exploratory boreholes (up to 80m deep) to see if there are deeper aquifers that can be tapped, and looking at the challenges associated with existing boreholes and piped networks, such as functionality and water quality, to increase water availability and resilience.

They are also training local officers and professionals in the water sector about essential supervision tasks such as monitoring drilling of boreholes, installing pumps and sampling water quality.

The capital, Lilongwe, too is facing a long-term crisis so the Government has approved a new project which will see the construction of a network of pipelines to transport water from Lake Malawi to the city.

The organisation being set up to oversee this network will be headed by Modesta Kanjaye, Director of Water Resources in the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development of the Government of Malawi, and an honorary Doctor of the University of Strathclyde.

Underground aquifers

Shared water resources, such as Lake Malawi (which is also bordered by Mozambique and Tanzania) or cross-border underground aquifers, present a particular challenge, and one potentially fraught with political disagreement.

UN data from 62 out of 153 countries that share transboundary water, show that only 59 percent of these resources had operational arrangements in place.

It’s an area that Bob’s PhD student Christina Fraser is investigating, and has co-authored a paper on with Modesta and others.

Christina is developing methodologies and frameworks for assessing the transboundary aquifers of Malawi and surrounding countries with the aim of supporting policy development for managing these resources sustainably.

Modesta has long-term links with Strathclyde and has been active in policy exchange between Scotland and Malawi.

In 2012 she met with Nicola Sturgeon as part of the HydroNation Forum to establish the collaboration on water between the two countries.

The HydroNation initiative was established by the Scottish Government to make Scotland a country ‘where the water resources are developed to ensure maximum benefit to the Scottish economy’.

The Hydro Nation Forum, of which Bob is a member, comprises water experts from industry, academia and the public sector which discusses ways in which to realise this vision.

The Scottish Government's International Development Minister, Ben Macpherson, said: “Access to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation is a fundamental human right. In September, I visited Malawi and saw first-hand how this University of Strathclyde project – backed by the Scottish Government’s Hydro Nation initiative and Climate Justice Fund – is making a difference and helping to improve the lives of many.

“The project supports the Government of Malawi with training and knowledge exchange on borehole drilling, chemistry, governance and water resource management, which will help the delivery of both new infrastructure and ongoing maintenance work, benefiting schools, health centres and homes.”

Historic links

Scotland is well-placed to share learning with Malawi; it has extensive experience in water management and is one of the few countries in the world, like Malawi, where water distribution utilities are under public ownership.

As part of Scottish Water’s contribution to the HydroNation initiative, Craig Murray is working on secondment with the University of Strathclyde via Scottish Water International, a subsidiary of Scottish Water set up to develop business opportunities abroad.

As programme manager on the ambitious and rapidly expanding programme he is implementing the appropriate project management; monitoring, reporting and governance to a programme of this size.

Craig says: “The team and the workload has grown significantly since the programme started and we’ve made huge progress towards more effective and open communication between Scottish Government and our teams on the ground in Malawi, all of which is backed up by evidence. This gives us confidence that we are moving together, in the right direction.

“Scottish Water is immensely proud to be part of the Water Futures Programme, helping to establish a better informed and prepared water sector, as well as supporting the deep-rooted, historic links which Scotland has with Malawi.”