Related Stories By Charles Mkula Published: 20120430
Harvesting the Rain



The African Technology Policy Studies Network (ATPS) has carried out a study in Malawi’s peri-urban communities to determine the extent to which harvesting rainwater from rooftops can be used for urban farming.

The study, which was conducted by two University of Malawi lecturers and a Lilongwe Water Board official, comes on the backdrop of the realisation that unco-ordinated and rapid urbanisation in Malawi’s urban areas has resulted in the growth of informal settlements.

The informal settlements are marked by destitution and lack of household food security.

Many of the people in these settlements rely on planting maize on small plots to enhance their food security.

These plots rely on rainwater, and if the rains are not good then the crop does not thrive.

Recently, Water Resources Officer in the Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Irrigation, Henrie Njoloma, said the southern African country should take advantage of alternative water sources.

This is because maize, Malawi’s staple food, is being threatened by changing rainfall patterns due to climate change.

Njoloma recommended building more sustainable irrigation systems, including removing policies that depend on rain-fed food production and economic activities to control problems associated with the changing rainfall distribution characteristics.

Harvesting rainwater from rooftops and other methods of harnessing could substantially boost food security.

The ATPS study notes that water access in marginal urban areas such as Kauma, Mchezi, Lumbadzi, Dzenza, Ngwenya and

Mtsiriza in the capital city of Lilongwe is a serious problem, particularly for the disabled, female-headed households, orphans and people affected or living with HIV or AIDS.

“Over and above their pursuit of daily sustenance, they have to contend with purchasing water, whose availability is erratic and if available, either comes at the wrong time or they have to physically struggle to access it,” it says.

ATPS - a multi-disciplinary network of researchers and private sector stakeholders - proposes to create a new culture of harnessing water resources in disadvantaged peri-urban communities.

The group wants to provide knowledge and skills necessary to enhance living conditions of marginal communities.

“The importance of rooftop rainwater harvesting in the peri-urban environment can simply be visualised as a poverty-reduction strategy through improved water supply and sanitation,” says ATPS, emphasizing that water deprivation drives poverty.

Many households in Malawi’s rural and peri-urban settlements get water from unprotected wells, springs, streams in low lying areas (dambos) and intermittent streams.

The Malawi government estimates that 65 percent of the population has access to potable water.

However, due to poor maintenance of supply systems, only 40 percent of the population is actually served with potable water.

“On the other hand, Malawi has ample water resources with an annual average precipitation of 1 037mm of which 196mm, or about 19 percent, is runoff,” says Mloza Banda, a Bunda College lecturer.

Banda adds: “This translates into 18 billion cubic metres per annum as surface runoff.”

The Malawi Social Indicators Survey reveals that only 37 percent of Malawi’s population has access to safe drinking water within a distance of less than half-a-kilometre of where they stay.

This figure increases to 48 percent when the distance is increased to one kilometre.

“Only 2.1 percent and 16.4 percent of the Malawian population have access to piped water in dwelling houses and a public tap, respectively,” states the ATPS study.

The study found out that families in Malawi’s peri-urban and rural areas rely on traditional water sources, which are often polluted in the rainy season due to erosion.

A 2002 Malawi government report indicated that the total daily water requirement per person was 30 litres, of which the daily minimum drinking requirement was five litres.

“The need to augment potable water for domestic use through rainwater harvesting is thus attainable and cannot be overemphasised,” says ATPS.

During the ATPS study, it was found that 32 percent of households in Lilongwe’s peri-urban areas said their principal sources of water were boreholes; while 34 percent said they bought water from private suppliers.

Shallow wells and boreholes are the other major sources.

“Individuals have developed their own water points while a handful of water facilities were developed by NGOs,” ATPS noted.

This was augmented by facilities provided by the Lilongwe Water Board and the Malawi Social Action Fund.

The study reveals that half of respondents have not paid or contributed to development of water sources, but have indicated they are willing to do so.

In the six settlements covered in the study, females were responsible for sourcing most of the water used.

A 1993 Malawi government/UNDP report showed that the planned optimum distance that a woman should carry water is 500 metres.

But as women have a particular obligation in maintaining a continual supply of water at home, they have often been involved in providing time and resources for the maintenance of boreholes and other water points.

Overall, the ATPS study indicates that the amount of effort it takes to draw water affects the amount of water drawn.

Tasks that require manual effort in drawing water include walking, drawing, pumping and carrying the water.

These require time and energy, leaving little room for any other activities.

Children also find themselves with little time and energy for schoolwork.

And with women largely responsible for farming activities, the burden on them is all the greater and hence the need for strategies to harvest rainwater as efficiently as possible.

A study of two villages has revealed that a man’s work day lasts between four and six hours, while women on average work 12 hours a day.

It has been further noted that women spend 39 days in a year caring for the sick or being sick themselves.

There is a limit to how much work a person can do and when women are stretched, agricultural production and household needs suffer.

The residents have already tried to harness rainwater.

“Eighty percent of the respondents said they have attempted to get rainwater from the roof for various purposes,” says the ATPS study.

“Given that not much has been achieved in the area of work load reduction, the roof rainwater harvesting initiative remains a vital option towards reducing drudgery associated with access to water for domestic use particularly, to ease the pressure of work on women,” argue the ATPS researchers.

Apart from providing ready water during the rainy season, such harvesting will also result in reduction in waterborne diseases and infections; regular and timely school attendance by children; time saved from water fetching from distant sources allocated to performing other development activities.

The researchers say the key to unlocking Malawi’s water potential is enabling users of all types and stakeholders to undertake new initiatives by lessening or removing constraints to increased access to water.

“This may require that policies and water provision mechanisms and technologies are appropriate for users’ needs; that dissemination mechanisms for the same are broadened, and that water provision mechanisms and technologies are realistic in terms of inputs and costs.

“Indeed, oblivious of various financing mechanisms, there is often the overemphasis on cost of technology,” the report says; urging that in planning and designing rainwater harvesting, consideration should be placed on existing policies and ordinances that govern various land-use practices and infrastructure development.

The study says blames Malawi’s present water policy documents and frameworks such as the Strategic Plan for the Ministry of Water and Irrigation, the Water Policy, the Water Resources Act are “inexplicit on water harvesting”.

The Africa Water Vision 2025 suggests that scarcity of water across the continent is not entirely due to natural phenomena.

It suggests that it is due, in part, to low levels of development and exploitation of water resources even though there is a growing demand for water in response to population growth and economic development.

“The basic challenge is providing increased water supply to meet the various end-use needs, mainly through increasing the capability to harness the flow and stock of available water resources, while improving the quality and efficiency of utilisation of water resources,” says the UN-Water/Africa Secretariat.

The ATPS study concludes: “The main task for any institutional and policy framework is therefore, the need to meet individual, community and livelihood needs in a sustainable manner that conforms with the requisite technical, hydrological, environmental, economic and social and legal conditions.”