Monday, November 05, 2012

Knee-deep in a river & dying of thirst: Malawi's water woes

On the morning of Sunday October 28th the water supply in the part of Lilongwe City where I live suddenly stopped. We thought it was a temporary problem. But lunch time came and the taps were still dry. I called the faults line for Lilongwe Water Board. They explained that a pipe had burst at their Mtunthama Booster Station, and their technicians were fixing the problem. They had no idea how long the repair work would take, but they reassured me the problem would be solved before the end of the day.

Over the course of the afternoon and evening I called the fault lines a few more times to ask for updates. To make dinner, we had to buy bottled water from a grocery store. The end of the day came but the water didn’t. I woke up at 3.30am to check. There was not a drop. At 5.20am I called the faults line again, and the news was different this time. They had just finished the repair work, and anytime the order would be given to start pumping water into the tanks. How long would it take before the taps would flow again? I asked. It was not possible to tell, came the reply.

Many wells and boreholes in Ntcheu have dried up
after four seasons of poor rains
It wasn’t until 9am on Monday morning, twenty four hours after the outage, that the taps started flowing again. For some areas of Lilongwe City water supply wasn’t restored for another excruciating twelve hours. But we know of parts of Lilongwe City where taps dry up for months. There have been letters to the editor and news articles on this. Recently we read about a group of people that stormed the office of the Lilongwe Water Board general manager, delivering an ultimatum for the parastatal to improve service delivery or people would stop paying their bills.

To their credit, Lilongwe Water Board has a functioning, regularly updated website. On Monday morning they uploaded a press release on the website detailing where the pipe had burst, who was affected, and what time repairs had been finished. The website is professionally designed, and provides much of the information that customers usually need. They even list numbers to call for faults, bill payments, and a host of other functions. Every time I have picked up the phone to call either the faults line, or customer service, there is always someone who responds. I have had my queries politely addressed, and have been treated with courtesy. At least this has been my experience, speaking for myself.  

That said, there are things Lilongwe Water Board could have done better in handling the problem. To start with, the immediate concern for customers was where we were going to get water for cooking, bathing, doing laundry, and for the toilets. Monday was a working day, children needed to go to school. What Lilongwe Water Board should have done immediately would have been to arrange for an emergency water supply for the affected areas. I am aware that no single water board in Malawi ever does this. The taps dry up, and you are on your own. And this goes for most Malawian public and even private entities.

Communicating with customers was another aspect LWB could have handled better. Organizations that value their customers are pro-active. Rather than wait for customers to call and find out why they are experiencing a problem, a pro-active organization will take the initiative and communicate first. A friend who runs an IT company, Austin Madinga, commented on twitter and remarked that he found it “hard to understand why [Malawian companies] don't use social media. So much faster, plus everyone is there already!” And he is right. The only reason I was able to find LWB’s press release on the water outage was because I was looking for evidence, for this blog post, of what measures the company had taken to communicate to their customers.

Many more people access their Facebook and twitter accounts on a daily basis. People using social media get the latest news without having to go searching for it. These days good websites operate hand in hand with social media. Social media is far much cheaper, and much more easily accessible. In countries where computer access is still light years behind, people use cellphones to access the Internet. And then there is sms, and instant message sent to thousands of customers at the click of a button.

The bigger point I am driving at is a new type of leadership that inspires Malawians. Malawians today are looking for leadership that evinces creativity, fresh ideas, and innovative thinking. Malawians find it difficult to understand why we continue to experience severe water shortages when the country is unusually blessed in terms of water sources. Lake Malawi straddles two thirds of the country’s length, and is a fifth of the country’s land area. The remaining one third has the gigantic Shire River. Lake Malawi is less than 100 kilometres away from Lilongwe City. Is there a good explanation why Lilongwe continues to suffer from acute water problems? Where is the visionary leadership that understands and appreciates how so blessed we are?

In parts of Ntcheu people are using carts, bicycles
and jerrycans to fetch water
As a few friends have observed lately, we Malawians appear to have such a high tolerance for mediocrity. Politicians, leaders of public institutions and the private sector know this. That is why they do not feel compelled to up their game. But this will not continue forever. Those leaders who are demonstrating vision and proving to be innovative thinkers will clearly stand out amongst the mediocre lot. I hope Lilongwe Water Board will exemplify that kind of leadership and demonstrate that they are forward-thinking. The country is changing, and expectations are changing also.

I started drafting this post in Lilongwe a day after the water problem I have described. This just-ended weekend I travelled to Zomba, where on Saturday morning the taps had no water in the part of town I went to. The Weekend Nation of Saturday November 3rd interviewed Blantyre Water Board’s public affairs officer Innocent Mbvundula asking him why Blantyre was also experiencing terrible water problems. The Nation of Friday November 2nd carried an article on Blantyre’s water problems and how human rights activists are taking up the issue. I finished the weekend in a part of Ntcheu where many wells and boreholes have dried up, and there are long lines at the few functioning boreholes.