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Groundwater in Malawi

Decades of well-intentioned charity campaigns have left much of the west believing that Africa’s water crisis is due to limited supply. This, however, is untrue. The continent has plentiful reserves of water, but these ‘water tables’ are found underground, and the groundwater in Malawi could be the solution the country’s water crisis.

Groundwater – found underground in aquifers, rocks and soils – makes up about 99% of all liquid freshwater on earth, and is abundant in much of Africa, but a lack of investment has left it untapped or poorly managed, two major studies have found.

Fiona Harvey in the Guardian

In fact, the studies highlighted that groundwater resources across sub-Saharan Africa could sustain the population for up to five years, even with no rainfall to replenish them.

The difficulty in accessing groundwater supplies has contributed to some of Malawi’s problems today. Boreholes are drilled at a depth between 25 and 40 metres, and these are usually covered with an Afridev hand pump; an efficient, but complex piece of equipment.

An Afridev community water point

While an Afridev protects the groundwater in Malawi from contamination and draws water with ease, it is a complicated piece of machinery. In rural areas, there is a shortfall of skilled and incentivised pump mechanics. Without these local experts, spare parts can be difficult to obtain. As a result, when an Afridev breaks, it often stays broken.

A broken Afridev pump

This has contributed to the staggering 50% rate of non-functionality of community pumps across the country. Broken water points are causing millions of wasted journeys for women and girls, and high rates of diarrhoea and other water-borne diseases. An organised and incentivised network of skilled mechanics is fundamental to improving the functionality of Malawi’s community water points.

Africa’s groundwater is clearly an invaluable resource, which must be accessed and managed responsibly.

Our team in Malawi recently attended and spoke about this at an event in Lilongwe, Creating resilient communities through groundwater. The event was held to mark World Water Day, bringing professionals and academics from the sector together.

Pump Aid staff delivered a presentation highlighting our award-winning repair and maintenance scheme, which empowers water entrepreneurs to make a living from community pump repairs. The entrepreneurs undergo intensive training to develop the skills to install, repair and maintain a variety of pumps. This incentivises them to restore broken investments and keep safe water flowing for rural communities.

Pump Aid Monitoring & Evaluation Manager Henderson speaks at the conference

In addition to deep groundwater levels, Malawi and many other countries in Africa have significant shallow water reserves. These can be found much closer to the surface, at depths between 5 and 20 metres. Water this close to the surface can be easily utilised for domestic and irrigation purposes.

Our low-cost pump investment scheme allows rural households to invest in their own water supply, through a low cost, protected hand pump. This brings safe water closer to home, and relieves the pressure on community water points.

Farmers can also access groundwater for their crops all year round using our irrigation pump. This hand pump can water an entire plot of land up to 1 acre. With farmers unable to rely on erratic rainfall for year-round harvest, a hand pump is a simple and sustainable solution. This is particularly important as Malawi’s dry season gets longer each year, contributing the country’s high rate of food insecurity.

These studies highlight the need to fix existing investments. To truly end water poverty, we need to focus on local, sustainable solutions in Africa. Harnessing groundwater in Malawi is where we begin.

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