Solar power for better water

Nora Lindstrom, Lilongwe Community Manager
Lilongwe, 6 January 2015

Accessing potable water is a prevalent challenge in Lilongwe. A recent survey of 33 poor settlements in the city found that while Lilongwe Water Board (LWB) pipelines extend to 85 percent of the settlements, almost half identified accessing water as a challenge. The majority of the city's poor access water through communal water kiosks which are open for limited hours and suffer from low water pressure. This situation puts a strain particularly on women, who get up as early as 1am to queue for water for the family to use the following day.

While Lilongwe's poor across the city face challenges accessing potable water, residents in the city's northwest are arguably worst off. LWB water pipes do not extend to the area, while water from boreholes and household wells is not always available and can be contaminated.

Technology has the potential to provide a partial solution to the situation. Matanda settlement, located in the north of the city, has since 2011 enjoyed access to water from a solar-powered kiosk courtesy of WaterMissions, an engineering NGO.

The kiosk works through tapping boreholes in the area, treating the water with chlorine, and providing residents with pre-paid, Internet-operated swabs known as water keys that can be used to access water. Credit can be added by paying cash to the kiosk attendant, who is present daily. Water, however, is accessible 24/7, in stark difference from the LWB model, where water is only accessible during the limited opening hours determined by the seller and prevalent water pressure. There are other benefits, too. Water from the kiosk is cleaner than water directly from a borehole or a household well, while at the same time it costs around half of what LWB charges for its water.

So, on the face of it, the solar-powered water kiosk seems like a great solution to a problem that could have widespread implications in the settlement. Nevertheless, some residents have expressed suspicions regarding the project, questioning how proceeds from the kiosk are used and complaining that previously free borehole water must now be paid for.

WaterMissions is upfront about challenges the project has faced. The organisation notes how many people in peri-urban areas are unwilling to pay for water, and some of these attitudes persist in Matanda despite extensive orientation about how the kiosk forms a sustainable source of clean water for the settlement.

The organisation is also very clear about the fact that it is not profiting from the kiosk. In fact, the kiosk is operating at a loss. For the project to continue, this is something that needs to be addressed.

Replication of the project across Lilongwe is at present not possible for other reasons as well. As a parastatal organisation, the LWB has a monopoly on water provision in areas where it operates. That means that WaterMissions' project in Matanda was only possible because the settlement is among the 15 percent of poor areas in the city that LWB pipelines do not yet reach. Other areas that experience challenges accessing water but have LWB pipes are essentially no-go zones.

This is a sad state of affairs. Lilongwe faces long-term water issues and residents, particularly in peri-urban areas, regularly consume water from unsafe sources such as shallow wells and rivers. Water cuts and low water pressure are also prevalent across the city. As such, it would seem that a more useful way forward would be for the city to consider collaborating with different stakeholders to develop a sustainable plan to provide water for all residents. New technologies such as solar-powered water kiosks could well play a role in this.

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