While access to safe, affordable drinking water is nearly universal in industrialized countries, many Malawians still rely on shallow, hand dug wells or surface water bodies that are contaminated with bacteria, parasites or toxic chemicals.
Poor quality water can have serious health implications including: the increased prevalence of water-borne diseases such as cholera, typhoid, and dysentery; higher rates of child mortality; and greater chance of infection amongst mothers and newborns. Many other water-related diseases such as scabies, flea, lice and tick-borne diseases, as well as mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue, malaria, yellow fever and onchocerciasis occur in the absence of proper water and sanitation facilities. These negative health impacts only compound the problems of poverty facing Malawi today.
While Malawi has significant groundwater resources, they are not easily accessible to rural populations that lack adequate infrastructure. More than 79% of Malawi’s population live in rural areas, and, while 92% of urban residents have access to improved water sources, more than 23% of rural inhabitants rely on unsafe water sources such as shallow hand-dug wells and surface water bodies.
In Malawi, 12% of all deaths among children under five are caused by diarrhea; moreover, diarrhea is responsible for 8% of all deaths nationally, behind only Malaria, Pneumonia and “Other” diseases.
Like much of sub-Saharan Africa, Malawi has failed to make progress in water and sanitation due to several compounding issues: a rapidly growing population, weak economic performance, insufficient or poorly aimed government action, inadequate resources contributed by the international community, and low levels of education and technical capacity among rural populations. Water and sanitation issues affect not only health but poverty, education, and gender issues among others.
Clearly, unclean water and unhygienic sanitation facilities can have detrimental effects on health; only after rural communities have access to these can they begin to address some of the other challenges that face them.