Water is life

The most common water points that you can find here in Thyolo include AfriDev and Malda handpumps, taps connected to Gravity Fed Schemes (GFS), and shallow wells. It is the responsibility of the District Water Office to manage these water points and water point committees, oversee repairs and installations, and act as a consultant for donors and organizations siting new water points and rehabilitating old ones. Unfortunately, due to a number of factors, it can be pretty difficult for the water office to actually carry out some of these tasks.

In development water infrastructure has often been looked at from an engineering perspective, design and build, instead of as a sustainable service. In 2006, an $11.9 million dollar CIDA (Canadian International Development Agency) funded project called COMWASH was completed in Thyolo. The goal of the project was to implement sustainable water, sanitation and health programs within the District. This included the construction of the four major gravity fed schemes that currently exist in Thyolo. COMWASH concluded in their final report that one of their key challenges in the project was the complexity of the GFS’s which subsequently was a challenge when organizing Water Point Committees in communities to manage the schemes once COMWASH left. The project also failed to engage the District Assembly in any substantial capacity building and had difficulty raising funds to cover the operation and maintenance costs of the GFS’s. The result of this project is that some of the GFS committees have fallen apart and the 107 tap scheme named Didi has not been functional for over a year. In fact, since January the functionality of all 4 GFS’s has never been higher than 50%.

Poorly managed and communicated projects seem to be the norm here in Thyolo. Donors are supposed to consult the water office before drilling any new water points, however a conversation with my co-worker the other day revealed that some donors fail to even notify the water office that they are constructing a new borehole, much less consult them on where new water points should go. The water office only discovers these boreholes have been drilled when they are later contacted about setting up a Water Point Committee or when the water point breaks. The Ministry has even drilled new water points without notifying the water office. They simply took instructions from an MP on where the MP wanted new infrastructure to go.

This is another serious problem within Districts in Malawi. MP’s can dictate where boreholes will go; they often promise new water points to communities as a way to get votes. The same communities are serviced over and over again while other communities are consistently passed over. Some communities will refuse to pay for a new water point because they believe that water is coming from their MP for free. It is policy in Malawi that donors who are funding new water points also fund Community Based Management (CBM) as well. This involves training for community members on the operation and maintenance of the water point and sets each community up with a treasurer responsible for collecting a monthly sum from each household to be used for maintenance and repairs of the water point. In some cases CBM training is not done at all or is done very poorly. I recently visited a borehole that had been broken for a about a year, it was only installed a year ago and worked for only one week.

To make a long story short, the district water office has a hard time keeping track of what is going on in Thyolo. Pair this lack of communication with an under resourced and underfunded water office and it’s easier to understand why unequal distribution and non-functionality is so prevalent in Malawi. This is why I am spending my semester here in Thyolo; the hope that I can help enable the district to coordinate, get their data in order, and use it make evidence based decisions when it comes to water infrastructure in Thyolo.

The water monitoring system that I am helping implement at the District is one that is both simple and effective. The concept of water monitoring is not new to development, however past systems have often involved GPS’s and complex software that is not within the computer skills of most water officers. The system EWB uses is a simple excel database that stores the number of functional and non-functional water points by village, group village, and traditional authority (these are just further divisions of the district). This information is then automatically entered into a simple pivot table that can show the water coverage rate and functionality rate by TA, GVH, and village. The really exciting part is that the program also generates a map of the district indicating areas with good and poor water coverage.

The information for this database is collected by Health Surveillance Assistants (HSA). Health is significantly more funded then water and has dozens of HSA’s who are already regularly visiting villages and collecting information on water and sanitation. Since Health is also interested in this information, the health office is usually willing to collect additional data on water points. Having this information allows the district to be able to make informed and strategic decisions when siting and rehabilitating boreholes and when working with MP’s and donors. It’s pretty exciting!

Anyways, that’s what I’m doing here in Thyolo; working to increase the coordination between the different areas of the district by getting everyone to work together on this new Water Point Monitoring System. Let’s hope it works! I’d love to know your thoughts, questions and advice. Also thanks for the questions on my last post; I have just made a note of them and should get back to you soon!



9 thoughts on “Water is life

  1. Hello Maria:
    Much of the article is technically behond me – I cannot notice that clear communication is a universal problem – regardless of where you live in the world.

    Sorry I missed the group skype on Friday. However, I’m sure you were more excited to talk to your friends rather than me!

    Love you and miss you terribly!

  2. I loved the pictures. I was thrilled to see your beautiful, smiling face. You room is slightly different from your bedroom here – however, the mess looks very familar. The walls are a little bare though.

  3. HI
    Seems you are doing well and are doing great work! Good job and be proud of whatever you help accomplish! We are all proud of you!!! Love the pictures!!! Take care and see you soon!
    Aunt Lori

  4. Very informative! Thanks!
    I would be interested in the specifics of how the information is used – you mentioned that it’s helpful for the district when working with MP’s and donors, but it sounds like they haven’t been working together much at all! Has there been much cooperation with regard to the use of this data on the side of the donors and MP’s (especially MP’s)? Is the data used for planning new boreholes, after it has broken down and brought to the attention of the district?

    Hope those questions made sense. Thanks for the update and the facebook pictures, and take care!


  5. Great update Maria. It really gives me a sense of the scope and complexity of what the district is facing.

    Have you found a champion within the Water Office? A key leader that will help bring others in the office on board with using the system?

    And do you think they will be able to rein in donors and MPs with the tool? Is there anyone who sees a way to get them to work more closely with the office, or has it been accepted as reality that MPs and donors will do whatever they want?


  6. Hello Maria,

    I also loved the pictures. You seem to be doing good things in Tyolo and we are all thinking about you here in Newfoundland.

    I love your posts, you seem motivated and passionate about your fellowship. Keep the stories and adventures coming.

    Much love,

  7. @Seth : These are some really good questions Seth! I am going to do my best to answer them! Communication that happens between the Water Office and MP’s and donors does vary a lot. Some donors are quite good at communicating with the Water Office, it’s just that the Water Office does not have adequate resources to suggest good locations for siting new boreholes. The Monitoring System is not really helping the communication that happens between the Water Office and Donors, but it will allow the Water Office to be aware of water points that they did not know existed. I’m not sure if this is the best solution or not as there will probably still continue to be a lack of communication between different organizations. I guess my hope for the Water Office is that the System can give them some credibility. Districts are not invested in very much because they are not seen as capable authorities without the help out of outside organization. Even though I am still here working at the district, my placement is exciting because if the Water Point Monitoring works it will have been successful without the help of a donor but as a project that was run and funded from within the district. As for MP’s, they are a bit trickier. I’m just going to say again that having a water point database will basically allow the district the give MP’s concrete data on where new infrastrusture is needed; if there is no data it is hard to tell an MP where to put new infrastructure and have him listen. Water Point Monitoring was done in Balaka because the district wanted to prove that they should be favoured more for new infrastructure (everyone seemed to think they had adequate resources). When they collected the data though they discovered that the water coverage rate for the district was in fact 107%. I have been chatting with the planning office a bit though about how we can increase coordination within the district and with outside donors, we haven’t nailed down anything concrete yet, but we’re thinking about it. I’d love to get some thoughts or ideas on how you think we could increase communication and coodination within districts.

    @ Evan : Unfortunately I have not found a champion at the water office for introducing the new system. I am okay with this though because everyone seems to be pretty excited about it, it is just frustrating sometimes because no one is taking a lead role on it right now. I’m hoping though to establish some standard protocol for running the system and ensuring that everything runs smoothly with the key players who are the Water Officer, Health Officer, and Planning Director. The reason I say that I am okay with the fact that there is no champion is that people get transferred from district to district a lot and I want to have lots of important players involved in the system. I’ve kind of answered your second question within Seth’s question. It is a little hard to nail down MP’s and donors but I definitely think it’s possible to increase communication. There will always be some small organization that comes in without much clue about what they’re doing, but there are a lot of “big players” and donors that work in the district that it will be easier to nail down. It’s also important to mention that there are already some donors that do a great job of consulting with the water office.

  8. Hi Maria,

    Thanks for the posts! I’m just wondering what challenges are you facing personally and in the office working on implementing the water monitoring system?

    And how is your work related/tied into the work the APS staff is doing?

    Who is your coach/buddy!! And what impact is that relationship having on your placement?


  9. Hi Jill!

    Thanks for all the questions! Right now there are two big challenges I’m facing in the office, I posted a short story about them on my latest blog entry though so I’m going to skip that question now.

    My work is related to APS work in that right now several APS are working on water point monitoring in several districts throughout the country. It is also related in that we are piloting a new training program for the system called “Evidenced Based Decision Making”. It’s a new program with limited curriculum, so myself and several APS have been working on it, testing out what works and sharing lessons learned for creating the curriculum. I am also working on district coordination (although it is going very poorly) which is fairly new to the team and they are trying to decide whether to keep working on it or not. Jolly Ann is doing a lot of work on this.


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