The gift of water
12 Dec 2012 | Blog | Malawi | Long-term Development
Earlier this year, Angela Ford, Caritas Australia's Communications Group Leader visited Malawi as part of the Australia Africa Community Engagement Scheme. Here, she shares some of her insights from the visit, particularly around the precious resource of water.
The human body is made up of
roughly 70% water; without it, it is only
a matter of days before we expire. Water
is constantly cycled through our bodies.
When we are in perfect health we need to
replenish the water we use and lose daily.
When we’re sick we lose more fluids than
usual and need to rehydrate even more.
These physiological conditions
contribute to a cruel and paradoxical cycle
that occurs across much of the developing
world. In many places the only available
water is riddled with bacteria that cause
sickness. When, as a result of drinking it,
people become sick, this in turn depletes
vital fluids and causes the need for further
water. It’s a vicious cycle.
I’ve been aware of this injustice, in
abstract, for much of my adult life; it
was not, however, until this year that I
witnessed its impact personally.
A lesson in humility
In July, I visited Malawi and Tanzania
as part of our five-year Australia Africa
Community Engagement Scheme
(AACES) where AusAID and Caritas
Australia support integrated community
development programs that focus on food
security and water, sanitation and hygiene
(WASH). With support from our national
Caritas offices in Tanzania (Caritas
Tanzania) and Malawi (CADECOM*), the
AACES programs are implemented by the
local diocese programs staff in nine rural
communities across six dioceses in both
It was in the small village of Nkhungulu
in Malawi where I received a first-hand
lesson in humility.
Women make up over 50% of the
approximately 200 people in Nkhungulu.
Like most communities in Malawi it is the
women and children who are responsible
for fetching the water every day. This
village, and others from surrounding
areas, used to collect their water from the
Bua River, which flows into Lake Malawi.
Cases of abdominal pain were a common
occurrence and the people had to share
their drinking water with wild animals.
The people of Nkhungulu have never
had safe drinking water; even when the
quality of the water in the Bua River may
have been good, collecting it has always
been unsafe. The river is home to a range
of aquatic animals, including hippos,
snakes and crocodiles; anytime a villager
collected water she risked her life.
It was a common phenomenon
for women from Nkhungulu and
surrounding villages to be attacked by
crocodiles. Water is essential to life.
Sourcing it and collecting it is not an
option. How terrifying to have to collect
water a number of times a day from a
river where you knew people had been
I met with the village Chief’s wife,
Regina Gumalia, who had survived such
an attack 15 years ago. She described
how up until recently the women used to
collect the water as a group, calling and
shrieking toward the water to alarm the
crocodiles, armed with buckets of stones.
Regina was attacked by a crocodile while
she carried her youngest daughter on her
back. She is ‘grateful’ that her friends were
able to help her save her child and beat
the crocodile away. While showing us her
scars she explained how relieved she was
that women and girls in the village don’t
have to rely on the river for their water
Supported by the AusAID-funded
AACES program, CADECOM and
the local Lilongwe Diocese have been
working in the village since the end of
2011. No other organisation had ever
worked with this community. Yet in
this short time into the five-year project,
the program has already transformed
Helping a community
It is easy to forget how important water is... My visit to Africa earlier this year reminded me how much water, in more ways than one, is fundamental to life and to living."
A borehole has been drilled, the pump is
now right in the heart of the village, and
the community has taken full ownership
of it including maintenance and servicing.
This borehole provides Nkhungulu and
six surrounding villages with safe access
to clean water and saves the women many
hours a day in water collection. Time that
can now be spent learning new skills,
tending to crops and livestock, caring for
children and earning an income.
In the short time that the AACES
program has been running in
Nkhungulu, there have been other
WASH initiatives that have also already
changed lives and set the community up
for future development. The community
has improved sanitation practices in
many ways including households making
their own plate and pot drying stands;
digging of rubbish pits; use of toilets;
covering toilet pits; building and using
hand washing facilities, and other general
community cleanliness. Nkhungulu’s
community members already attest to
improved health, less illness and feelings
of improved quality of life.
All of these WASH initiatives along
with other programs such as agricultural
developments, livelihood training, and
savings and loan schemes stem from the
community’s own vision. Our AACES
programs are framed on a strengthsbased
approach so it is the community
members who assess their resources,
assets and skills and with the support of
our local field staff they visualise what
their community will look like in five
years’ time. This ensures all development
initiatives are community-led and
owned, culturally and environmentally
appropriate, and sustainable.
The future for Nkhungulu
Life is still not easy in Nkhungulu,
but two significant burdens have been
erased. The people now have clean
drinking water and they no longer have
to collect their water in fear.
Since returning home I have been
challenged by just how easy it is for me
to get the water I need. When I hear
people grumble about the rise in water
rates I reflect on the lessons learned
from the women in Nkhungulu.
Water means health. Water means
food security. Water means safety and
security. The ‘gift’ of water helps to
reduce the horrors that attack people’s
dignity. Water gives life and water is life.
I have also been able to reflect on
aid and development. This project has
changed lives and changed the future
for this community. What I saw in
Tanzania and Malawi were undeniable
examples of how development projects
can support communities and provide
practical opportunities for people to
help themselves out of poverty.
It is a shame these good news stories
don’t make the headlines. Too often,
criticisms of aid grab the public’s
attention. Right now, for me, the
antidote is simple – I just have to think
about which way I would prefer to get
* CADECOM: Catholic Development Commission in Malawi
Read more stories from CaritasNews Summer 2012
Learn more about our AACES work, Realising African Visions: strong people, powerful communities
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