It’s not about access, it’s about whether water flows.
Back in 2009, the mess caused by failed water supply had reached its pinnacle in Blantyre low-income area, known as Nkolokoti-Kachere. The more than 25, 000 residents of this urban Malawi slum owed more than $US 11,000 in unpaid water fees, and so water had stopped flowing. Adding to the problem of unpaid bills was the poor state of the volunteer-managed water kiosks and the plethora of broken pipes.
Though the area was considered “covered” in terms of global “access” jargon, championed by the United Nations Joint Monitoring Program, nobody in this area was comforted by this designation. Consequently, residents walked past these broken kiosks, instead collecting water from unprotected sources, from creaky and failing handpumps, or from water vendors selling at considerable costs.
Nkolokoti-Kachere was a monument to failed water provisions.
But now, three years later, Nkolokoti-Kachere looks very different. The success of the local Water User Association (WUA) is a startling tale of improvement that is encouraging, despite the fact that it is not yet completed.
Sheik Kawinga, president of the Water User Association (WUA) in Nkolokoti-Kachere, took me on a tour of the many new kiosks that are managed by the WUA. He knows that EVERYONE does not have reliable service just yet, but he has his eyes clearly set on a resolution to the water problems that focuses on reaching EVERYONE, FOREVER.
The WUA is part of a new breed of water system managers – formed in 2009 with the support of the Blantyre Water Board and finances from the European Investment Bank – who have collectively decided to rethink failed water supply systems in slums.
In this case, the WUA has not only repaid Blantyre’s debts, but it now has a rather large surplus in the bank. There are 59 public kiosks that are now operational throughout the low-income area that reaches across Blantyre, and 72 jobs have been created for women who manage each kiosk and work in the WUA office. Women, who are seen as the most responsive kiosk managers and who know which families are too poor to pay, have thrived in these positions across Nkolokoti-Kachere.
The WUA is an investor in water supply. They have invested the money that has been collected from tariffs for seven additional public kiosks, as well as a series of water storage tanks in an effort to improve service and reach more people. These storage tanks are used to augment water supplies to those families on the edges of Nkolokoti-Kachere who generally are the last to be served in the slum, when supplies can run low.
Celebrations On Hold
More job creation; water that is closer to the home; reduced downtime when a kiosk does happen to spring a leak; ambitions to build more storage tanks and to construct more kiosks so that the distances for families to fetch water are further reduced — all of these are on the horizon in Nkolokoti-Kachere.
But celebrations are on hold still, as the community has yet to achieve the EVERYONE status.
Sure, all 25,612 residents of this low-income area have access to a public water kiosk or a yard connection. All are within the government-prescribed distance of 250 meters to fresh water, not to mention that the water that comes out of these taps meets government water quality standards. Leaks are fixed fast. And key progress has been made on FOREVER, as well – tariffs are being collected, surpluses are being used to improve coverage and supply, and lifeline tariffs (i.e. free water) are offered to families who are too poor to pay.
This clearly agitates Sheik, adrenaline pushing him faster with each step as we walk from kiosk to kiosk in Nkolokoti-Kachere. Each kiosk we visit has the dreaded empty jerry cans placed under the taps, with lines of jerry cans behind, waiting for water to flow.
Empty jerry cans lining up behind dry taps is a bad sign anywhere – translation: water is not flowing through the system right now, and in this case water has not been running since yesterday.
Sheik is not the only one who is upset. Kiosk operators are unhappy too, because this means that they are losing revenue. Families are furious as they ponder alternatives — which are usually unsafe supplies — to meet pressing household water needs.
Though there are frustrating parts to this puzzle, the improvements in Nkolokoti-Kachere are truly remarkable. Sheik does not lose sight of this.
In 2010, there were only 39 kiosks for this vast urban population, and 35 of these, or 90 percent of them, barely functioned. Or, if they did function, service was so irregular that people would be startled to see water actually pouring from broken taps.
Now, expectations have been raised. Water flows through 59 kiosks, and 46 of them, or 77 percent, have a level of service and supply that meets government standards. The remaining kiosks are not quite there – taps may exist, and kiosk operators may be in place, but demand is high and water flows too infrequently for anyone to be satisfied.
The challenge, in this case, is simple to explain but hard to solve: Blantyre still does not have enough water for all of its residents to have a regular supply, as is clearly demonstrated by the empty jerry cans that Sheik and I have seen today. Thus, there will still people who will walk past functioning kiosks that do not have enough water flowing through their veins to meet the entire community’s daily needs. In other words, because EVERYONE FOREVER has yet to be reached, the work here continues.
However, as we move onwards to the next kiosk, I smile, because the day is coming when we in the WASH community will no longer simplistically celebrate “access” and count taps as indicators of success. No, Sheik will not allow that, nor will his customers and employees. Their demands are, rightly, higher.
Sheik is demanding better service, and the Blantyre Water Board is working to meet that demand. The Water Board is looking to tap new water resources so that all residents have a reliable supply of water. As such, we are hopeful this challenge will be addressed. Taps mean nothing unless water flows through them regularly and families truly never need to use an unprotected source for their daily water needs.
I imagine Sheik will not stop pushing until that outcome is achieved.