A welcome return to Malawi

Cross-contamination is likely when the water source is open to animals.

In May, I was in Malawi to scope out issues with water in rural areas. It was a welcome return to the country that sparked my interest in international development and African studies, and I hadn’t been back to Malawi since living there in 2003. And 15 years on, apart from making me feel really old, it was amazing to be back!

Poverty struggle

Malawi really is a beautiful country and its popular tag line as ‘the warm heart of Africa’ is well earned. But it is a country that has been struggling to raise income levels and its poverty rates have stagnated relative to its neighbours.

Returning to the village I lived in 15 years ago was surprising for all the wrong reasons: all apart from one of the teachers at the local school have died despite none that would be older than 60 today (the main culprits being AIDS, TB, malaria), the forested areas around the village have all but disappeared, and the population seemed to have increased by a good 30%.

Deforestation & water

15 years ago, these hills were covered in dense forest.

Deforestation is a major issue in Malawi. And it’s having a severe impact on the ability of the country to manage its water sources and ensure safe drinking water supplies.

With fewer trees, there’s less rainfall as well as higher run off rates and more contamination in the existing water suppliers… not good all round, particularly given the country’s high rate of population growth (ca 3%).

We know that there is a requirement for a system like CAFE that can remove bacteriological and chemical contamination for drinking water sources in Malawi. And we also know that are a lot of local and international organisations working to improve water access.

In it for the long haul, not a one hit wonder

However, there are multiple issues to overcome, as explained in these neat videos from BASEFlow (1). Sustaining any infrasture in rural areas can be problematic, particularly when there is no financial model to generate the funds for operation and maintenance. This is even more tricky to manage in circumstances of extreme poverty, but there are ways to do so successfully and I believe we can develop a model that ensures sustainability for the long term.

Part of the answer is to work in productive partnership with Malawian organisations that are already active in the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) space.

Sustainability also includes:

  • ensuring that the technology is low maintenance and doesn’t have a complicated supply chain (i.e. if something breaks you don’t need to import something from Europe)
  • generating employment locally to support the operations&maintenance of the tech, and
  • putting the community the tech is meant to serve at the heart of the project
  • working closely with the local authorities and not excluding them from the process/planning/implementation/operation.

We’re in the process now of working out the best way to achieve all of these things to enable a flourishing business and the supply of great quality water to where it’s most needed in Malawi.

Malawi & Scotland links

My left hand man during a renovation & painting week at Banda Hill School

Malawi’s great relationship with Scotland via the Scotland-Malawi and Malawi-Scotland Partnerships, as well as at governmental level, will be extremely useful for us in achieving our aims.

It means that we are easily able to see which Scottish organisations are working in Malawi, who’s engaged in WASH, and learn from their experiences.

The Scottish Government’s strategic aims to promote international development in Malawi also means we should be eligble for funding support to help pilot our tech and approach, too.

So, lots to look forward to for our future Malawian work. Get in touch if you want to find out more!

(1). BASEFlow is a Malawian organisation that’s particularly interested in sustaining and maintaning the country’s groundwater; they’ve done some excellent YouTube videos about financing the water sector, why handpumps aren’t always the answer, and discussing the water crisis.