Bridging the water and sanitation gap in Malawi’s informal settlements

Chisomo Jose (23) lives in Chinsapo squatter settlement, in Lilongwe, which has a water kiosk provided by the Lilongwe Water Board. The kiosk, though, is only open six hours a day when it is functioning.

Jose, who works as a receptionist at one of Lilongwe’s manufacturing companies, wakes up at two in the morning to beat the queue at the kiosk and draw water for her daily bath and meals, an exercise that takes about 25 minutes. She says she doesn’t get enough water for her daily needs.

“On Saturday I collect water from unprotected shallow wells or streams for washing clothes,” she says. Because of the problems faced at the kiosk most people only draw one bucket for drinking and cooking while the rest of their water is obtained from other sources, she explains.

Kiosk water in this settlement costs MK2.00 for a 20-litre bucket — less than one U.S. penny. Most households of about seven people in the country’s informal settlements earn between US$70 to $250 per month and are unable to meet their daily dietary requirements.

Residents of Malawi’s informal settlements face daily struggles for access to water. With an expanding urban population, fueled by an uncontrolled influx of migrants to cities, the country’s informal settlements have expanded, resulting in overcrowding, poor housing conditions, poor sanitation, and lack of access to clean water. The added impacts of climate change and deforestation around prime water sources puts an added burden on water supply.

Over 2.5 million people in Malawi remain without safe drinking water, and almost half of the population does not have access to adequate sanitation, according to a report from the UK Department for International Development.

The country’s housing and construction sector has not responded to the needs of the urban poor, especially those living in informal settlements where basic sanitation, water provision and waste management services are almost absent, says Amos Tizora, Executive Director of the Circle for Integrated Community Development (CICOD), a local NGO providing water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services in Malawi.

Residential plots at Chinsapo and other settlements across the country are heavily congested with most of them serving up to nine households who have to share toilets and bathrooms that are often inadequate and poorly maintained, observes Tizora.

As much as 70 percent of Lilongwe’s population uses pit latrines while only 20 percent use toilets linked to septic tanks, according to CICOD. Diarrhoea, caused by dirty water and poor sanitation, is said to cause more than 10% of under-five child deaths in Malawi.

In an effort to turn the situation around, CICOD has since 2011 been implementing a water and sanitation initiative in some of Lilongwe’s informal settlements, including the low-income areas of Chinsapo where Jose lives.

The project is supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation through the Lilongwe City Council with WaterAid and Lilongwe Water Board providing technical support. So far, the project has installed 20 water tanks in three informal settlements across Lilongwe to supply water to about 20,000 people daily, according to CICOD project manager Edward Thole.

“This will lead to improved and sustainable access to safe water since it is estimated that only 80% of the water kiosks in the settlements are functional and only 50% provide sustainable access to water,” says Thole.

After realizing that most schools in the settlements did have enough latrines, or sanitation facilities that cater for menstrual hygiene and accessibility for children with disabilities, CICOD has installed 10 latrines in schools to service 2400 pupils per day. These latrines are self-contained, and include a urinal, a hand washing station, and four toilet compartments with a capacity to accommodate 60 pupils. Each latrine has one compartment specifically for children with disabilities, and one compartment for Menstrual Hygiene Management in the case of girls’ latrines.

The CICOD project has also worked at improving sanitation at household level, doing door-to-door campaigns targeting homeowners, landlords and tenants to adopt improved sanitation technologies.

Jose points at the change in the residents’ lives compared to the period before CICOD began its work. “We can safely say informal settlement residents are now experiencing increased access to and use of improved sanitation and safe hygiene practices,” she says.

While CICOD is making headway in the informal settlements, overall Malawi still faces large water challenges. It remains “seriously off-track” from achieving the sanitation Millennium Development Goal target, according to the DFID report.

Water supply and sanitation services and use of safe hygiene practices are among the key priority areas in the Malawi Growth and Development Strategy (2012 – 2016).


Charles Mkula is a journalist who has worked for a number of newspapers and magazines in Malawi since 1998. He has also worked as a communications officer for the Secondary Centres Development Programme (SCDP), an urban development programme in Malawi set up with support from the German KfW to support urban development. Since his entry into the development field, Charles has been passionate about advancing rural and urban development in Malawi.

Photo: CICOD Executive Director, Amos Tizora, conducting an awareness campaign.

Read older posts from this section

Leave a Reply