Safely managed water, sanitation, and hygiene services are essential in preventing and protecting human health during public health emergencies, including the Covid-19 pandemic. One of the most cost-effective strategies for increasing pandemic preparedness is investing in core public health infrastructure, including water and sanitation systems, in resource-constrained settings. Properly managed WASH services are also critical during the recovery phase of a disease or pandemic outbreak. They help in mitigating secondary impacts on community livelihoods and wellbeing.

The need to build back better in informal settlements

For the past few months, the Centre for Community Organization (CCODE) and its alliance partner the Federation for the Rural and Urban Poor (Federation) have been working on a number of Covid-19 response initiatives in informal settlements in the cities across Malawi. Blantyre, Malawi’s commercial city, has not been spared from the effects of the pandemic. Itshighlypopulated informal settlements, just like other informal urban settlements in the country, have been shattered. People have lost jobs. Small businesses have struggled with the reduced buying power of the consumer. Families are desperate. 

Malawi is one of the fastest urbanizing countries in the world with an annual urban growth rate higher than 5% and an urban population of 20% of its entire population. As many as 76% of urban dwellers are estimated to live in informal settlements. These areas are characterized by lack of access to public services, tenure insecurity, and inadequate housing.

Access to potable water, sanitation and hygiene – fundamental human needs, have always been a problem in informal settlements in Malawi. Many people living in informal settlement rely on communal water kiosks to access water for cooking and drinking. All other water needs are taken care by water sourced from unprotected wells and streams. This – compounded by poor sanitation practices, means that waterborne illnesses including cholera and diarrhea arecommonplace.

Kiosks do not provide a 24-hour service. Most kiosks are open for only five hours a day – 3 hours in the morning and 2 hours in the afternoon. They remain closed overnight. Interruptions to supply are also a common practice. These two factors result in congestion at the kiosks. 

Majority of households take between 25 minutes or more to obtain water – including traveling and and queuing time.

Crowded Situations

Overcrowded sights are an order of the day in informal settlements in Malawi. With Covid-19 amidst us, this poses a danger of people quickly transmitting the virus.

The danger is made even more evident in communal water places and market places where social distancing is impossible. Overcrowding at the water selling points increasingly puts users at risk of contracting the virus which primarily spreads through contact.

The Intervention

CCODE and the federation have been working with community governance structures in informal settlements in facilitating community engagement activities with water, hygiene, and sanitation (WASH) providers in the city – the Blantyre Water Board (BWB) and Blantyre City Council (BCC). BWB provides water to individual households and water kiosks.

The kiosks are managed by Water Users Associations (WUA). These engagement meetings have resulted in WUAs agreeing to increase the opening hours for all kiosks. Once implemented, this is likely to see a reduction in congestion at public water points. The partnership is also lobbying for the construction of new kiosks to ease congestion and reduce the distance to and from water selling points. This is long-term thinking as it requires financing.

Ultimately, the engagement meetings with service providers will see over 100,000 people from informal settlements in the city of Blantyre having access to potable water andin environments that do not put their health or that of their loved ones at a risk.

Much as kiosk open time has been increased, there are still people struggling to access potable water as the cost is also another prohibiting factor. Thus, more advocacy work on water pricing needs to be done to ensure increased access. Furthermore, increasing access to safer water has to go hand in hand with improved sanitation and hygiene.

This process is being supported by Cities Alliance and Slum dwellers International (SDI) under their Covid-19 response program. 

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