July 17th 2014

Yesterday I went with a friend who runs a few gravity fed schemes (GFS) by the Machinga boma to see the Bububu scheme. There are many ways that people get water in Malawi, but gravity-fed schemes have become increasingly popular, especially because the past president, Joyce Banda, really pushed for their development.

GFS’s are seen as better for people than boreholes because it is easy to treat the water on its way from the river and it already uses the push of gravity to flow downstream so it is easy to build personal taps that do not need electricity to pump the water. I’ve been to a few Water Users Association (WUA) meetings so I had a general idea of how the system ran but I hadn’t actually seen one in practice.

We hiked up through a beautiful village (it’s so much greener on the other side of the mountain!) past mosques and irrigation schemes, surrounded by rice plantations and banana trees. It was clear that the scheme is somewhat supported by the community (more on that later) and what a hard worker my friend is because he stopped to greet everyone and even popped in a few houses, as well as reminded board members about the upcoming meeting. We met with two plumbers and one of the board members who were redirecting some of the water that was leaving the sedimentation tank instead of going into the treatment tank before walking the short path to the source of the water. It was so peaceful up there and after hiking around a bit we just chilled with the plumbers and the board member. The air was full of beautiful white, purple, and orange butterflies and I saw a frog the size of my thumb nail! Women walked down the path carrying huge loads of wood on their heads for charcoal making and we chatted a bit in Chiyao and Chichewa. The night before I dreamed I was in a forest so it was funny to have the dream become a reality and sit in the shade.

The source comes from the Bububu river which is a small stream that cuts down the hill surrounded by jungle-y looking trees and bushes and mango trees. They build a weir to catch the water but let most of it still continue downstream so that the ecosystem wasn’t too disrupted and that the water could still be used for laundry and irrigation. The water funnels into a pipe that carries down to the sedimentation tank filled with sand from Mangochi (sure enough it looked exactly the same as the quartz sand that clung to my feet at Lake Malawi) to trap sediment and mud; smaller particles at the top and larger quarry rock at the bottom.

After the sedimentation tank, the pipes take the water to the storage tank where it’s treated with chlorine and then runs underground down the hill to various public and private taps.

The structure of GFS’s management is quite layered. At the top is the District Council who oversees all projects and work in the district. Below is the General Assembly, volunteers elected by the catchment community, and last week I was lucky enough to attend a General Assembly training for the Namikomia GFS by the Malawian NGO PDI so I actually know their roles and responsibilities. The GA appoints members of the Board of Trustees, approves the budget for operation and maintenance, extensions, and/or acquisition of other capital assets, attends AGMs, and receives, deliberates and adopts all annual reports, financial statements, etc.

Below is the Board of Trustees, also volunteers, who must have more roles but unfortunately I forget and I think that what they do hire the Local Operator, plumbers, approve budgets, etc.

Under the Board of Trustees is the Local Operator who I am assuming is the manager (I had to leave the training a lot for other phone calls and also it was mostly in Chichewa so I apologize for the gaps in knowledge) who will ensure the actual running of the scheme. The Local Operator must work with the Treasurer/Accountant and the Fund Collector(s) who gather the monthly funds from each household that use the specific tap(s).

Below that are the Water Users themselves who elect the General Assembly, choose the type of water facility and site, provide labour and local materials for construction, maintaining the environment around the tap and protecting the catchment area, assess and prioritize community needs, etc.

I think in a lot of ways this system could be more sustainable than boreholes, mainly because with the monthly payments by households, the system is creating stable jobs for the fund collectors, plumbers, and treasurer, as well as ensuring that there will always be money around for actual repairs. However it is not without challenges. One thing my friend brought up was that it is difficult to change people’s minds. It might not always be easy to convince people to pay for water when they can get it for free from the boreholes that are already built and established. Though the amount is minimal, I can’t assume that everyone would be able to spare even a small amount of kwacha, and as I said, the community is used to having water for free. I saw a couple taps that had been closed because the communities did not pay for it. He also mentioned that due to NGOs and previous governments (one of the partie’s leaders is from my district) people are somewhat used to handouts and getting services for free. I can’t blame them, but I’ve realized how important continuity and setting clear expectations is in every aspect of life, but especially in development.

Another issue is the environmental protection itself of the area. Climate change is a serious issue and it has been brought up at every meeting I have attended and individuals have expressed their concern to me during conversations quite a bit. As I mentioned, women were bringing wood down to make charcoal, the main source of fuel in the area for cooking and heating water. The mountains surrounding Liwonde are patchy where large tracks of trees have been cut down. But at the same time, what would the charcoal sellers do for income otherwise? And where would the fuel source come from if not from charcoal? These questions are not easy to answer and are debated and brought up at the national level of government right down to the Water Users. There is a Liwonde forest conservation reserve which I have seen the office for, but I don’t know much about it and the District Environmental Office’s role in reforestation or conservation (yet!). Without the forest cover and root systems, water runs off down the mountains into larger rivers and empties into lakes and oceans or is evaporated in the process instead of into the streams used for water or into underground water tables. In water-y BC, with our snow capped mountains and numerous streams and rivers, it’s hard to imagine running out of drinking water, but in other parts of the world it’s very serious.

Anyways as you can tell this explanation of Gravity Fed Schemes went off track but I think it’s very interesting all of the different ways that people get water here! It’s important to note that climate change is a very real and very serious issue, here and around the world, especially while Canada’s Prime Minister does whatever he wants over there in Alberta…