Malawi's statistics mask struggle to meet UN goal for water and sanitation in urban areas

Water and sanitation remain woefully inadequate despite government claims that nearly all urban citizens have access to safe water and sanitation.

News, 13 August 2009

Malawi is failing to meet the Millennium Development Goal for water and sanitation in its urban areas and misleading official statistics are hiding the scale of the problem, according to research published today by the International Institute for Environment and Development and the Scottish Government.

The news comes ahead of the annual World Water Week conference in Stockholm, Sweden (16-22 August) whose theme is Accessing Water for the Common Good.

The UN Millennium Development Goals were set in 2000 and include a target to halve, by 2015, the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.

But as the new study shows, water and sanitation remain woefully inadequate in the informal settlements that are home to around 60 percent of Malawi’s urban population, despite government claims that nearly all urban citizens have access to safe water and sanitation.

The research was conducted by Mtafu Manda, director of the Alma Consultancy in Lilongwe, Malawi, in nine of the country’s low-income informal urban settlements. Mtafu Manda also teaches at Mzuzu University in Malawi.

It draws on interviews with 1,178 households living in nine low-income settlements in each of Malawi’s three largest cities (Blantyre, Lilongwe and Mzuzu). The study included interviews with staff from central and local governments, civil society organizations and water sellers operating water kiosks (where water can be purchased by the bucket).

In the nine settlements studied, only one-quarter of households had their own individual water connections. Half relied on water bought from water kiosks while 13 per cent bought water from another house plot. Kiosks do not provide a 24-hour service; most are open for three hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon, and remain closed overnight.

"Regular, safe, affordable supplies of water and good provision for toilets are such an obvious part of development, and so central to better health," says Manda. "They are also central to livelihoods and for saving time, meaning no longer having to walk long distances or endure long queues to get water or use a communal toilet."

Interruptions to supply are common however. During 2008 in Blantyre and Lilongwe, there were several occasions when there was no water in the system for more than a week. Many households had difficulties affording sufficient water supplies; some buy just one bucket of water a week from kiosks, getting the rest of their water from other (potentially contaminated) sources such as shallow wells and rivers. Diarrhoeal diseases are among the most common causes of illness and cholera outbreaks are common in the informal settlements.

Less than one-tenth of Malawi’s urban population live in homes connected to sewers. Ninety per cent of Blantyre’s inhabitants and 92 per cent of Lilongwe’s lack a sewer connection (and these are cities with more than 600,000 inhabitants).

In Mzuzu, a city with more than 100,000 people, there are no sewers. Most people in these three cities rely on pit latrines, and in the informal settlements, most households share latrines. These are mostly cheap to construct but expensive to empty, and it is common for pit latrines to be abandoned and another pit to be dug. Most households in the informal settlements are not served by any household waste collection.

Given these very large inadequacies in provision for water and sanitation in the three largest cities, it is puzzling to find official statistics for 2006 suggesting that 96 per cent of Malawi’s urban population had access to potable water, while 97 per cent had access to safe sanitation. This study shows that these figures are very inaccurate.

But there are some positive developments. In many settlements, Water Users’ Associations have improved the management of water kiosks, although they often have difficult relations with the water boards who sell them water. The Malawi Homeless People’s Federation, a federation of savings groups formed by those living in informal settlements, has demonstrated how their members can build their own good quality homes, if they can access land sites, and they have been trying out new kinds of latrines, including eco-sanitation toilets.

The report ends by noting that the priority to water and sanitation will remain low if official statistics greatly understate the deficiencies in provision and if governments and aid agencies give so little priority to addressing these deficiencies.

“Far more attention is needed to water and sanitation in urban areas if the Millennium Development Goals are to be met in Africa,” says David Satterthwaite, senior fellow in IIED’s Human Settlements Programme. “