The gift of water

12 Dec 2012   |   Blog   |   Malawi   |   Long-term Development

Tags:  WASH, water, AACES, sanitation   |   2 comments

Women in Malawi collecting water from the local river

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 countries.

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 attacked.

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 supply anymore.

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 community life.

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 a drink.

* 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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  • Iona

    “Perhaps an occasional article in the regular news papers would promote this simple and basic right of all human beings to have easy access to clean drinking water.”

  • Caritas team

    “Hi Iona. We are working on expanding our coverage in the mainstream media, and are encouraged by your words of support. Many thanks!”