The Politics Of Water 1: Investigating the sustainability of rural water projects in Balaka District, Malawi

Grantham Scholar Naomi Oates is in Malawi doing fieldwork. She is examining how policies, politics and water are entangled in everyday lives. Here she reports on her first weeks in the field and the complex reasons why a water pump may fail. 

My first impressions of Malawi? It is hot! Temperatures are reaching 37°C in Balaka district at the moment. Around midday it is particularly difficult to move around in the scorching sun. It is much preferable to sit under a shady tree until the heat dissipates a little (usually it becomes bearable by 3pm). The landscape is very dry. Sometimes there is a gentle cooling breeze, but that can also kick up a lot of dust.

The landscape around Alufeyo village, Balaka

Fortunately, the rains will be starting in November, which will cool things down and allow the crops to grow. However, power cuts are a frequent occurrence at that moment, because the country cannot generate enough to meet demand. As a result, electricity has to be rationed.

Generally hydropower is the main energy source, but reservoirs are at their lowest at this time of year. Water supplies to Balaka town are also suffering.

Week one: District Water Office, Balaka

My desk at the Balaka District Water Office

During my first week in the field I was settling in at the District Water Office in Balaka, getting to know the staff members. This will be my home for the next 4-5 months (with a break to return to the UK for Christmas). It is located just behind the market in Balaka town and has four rooms, plus lots of storage containers for equipment and spare parts.

I sit in the same room as the District Water Development Office – the boss – although he is often away for meetings.

Around 49 staff employed by the office in total. Many are based at the treatment works and dam in Ntcheu (the neighbouring district) which supplies Balaka with piped water. Far fewer staff are working on groundwater supplies, namely the boreholes with handpumps provided to rural communities. These rural communities are the focus of my research.

Week two: Waterpoint failure

UpGro researchers carry out a pumping test to measure the water yield of this borehole

In my second week the UpGro Hidden Crisis survey team arrived. This is the project my PhD is linked to.

UpGro are investigating the multiple causes of waterpoint failure. Investigations look at the functioning of mechanical components in the hand pump. Plus they look at borehole characteristics (e.g. siting and yield) and various aspects of water quality.

Discussions are also held with communities to discuss the history of the waterpoint – its construction, breakdowns and repairs, and local arrangements to collect fees and maintain the handpump.

Every waterpoint has a different set of problems. In the case of Alufeyo the community were contributing money for repairs, and showed willingness to pay. But the borehole has been badly sited and produces a low yield.

Ultimately, it is poor rural households that suffer when a waterpoint fails, particularly the women whose job it is to fetch water.

What next?

Households pay 300 kwacha a year to use this waterpoint.

Next week I hope to accompany one of the Water Monitoring Assistants on a Red Cross project that will be drilling and rehabilitating boreholes, and training Water Point Committees (community volunteers).

Overall, my research aims to understand the role of different actors at the district-level in developing and sustaining rural water services. Specifically, how they get their jobs done and the networks of relationships on which they draw. One aspect of this is to explore the interface between the district government offices and the communities they support.

Water is inevitably political. Behind the engineering and training manuals are a raft of different stakeholders, with various interests and ambitions. I want to make sense of this complexity, to understand how governance arrangements affect the sustainability of rural water supplies.

 

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