The Forgotten Story of Dams in Malawi

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George Mhango, Blantyre in Malawi
September 29, 2015

Situated in between Manja and Soche East in Malawi’s commercial capital Blantyre, Chimwankhunda Dam was lively in the 1990s and years before. The dam derived its beauty from clean water and green vegetation surrounding the facility.

The dam was also one of the tourists’ destination areas for locals and foreigners visiting Malawi.

President of Malawi Peter Mutharika
President of Malawi Peter Mutharika

It provided relief to surrounding residents each time there was water shortage. People went there to wash clothes and draw water as others engaged in casual fishing with prior notice to the security guards city council authorities placed them there.

Go there today. You will be shocked because the dam looks forgotten. It has also become a threat to residents within the dam’s vicinity. Its appalling state has also led to the drying up of Chimwankhunda River, which also used to be the source of water for home use and agricultural production.

Even the usual trade mark of first President Kamuzu Banda ‘Long live Kamuzu’ which was written inform of bricks and sometimes painted in the Malawi National Flag colors can no longer be spotted.

Malawi’s founding President, Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda
Malawi’s founding President, Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda

Water hyacinth locally known as Namasupuni, weeds and mere grass describe the once mighty dam at the moment. Environment experts say water hyacinth is considered a threat to biodiversity.

With bush all over the dam, Blantyre City Council (BCC) authorities agree that mosquitoes threaten lives of many residents.

Officials from the city council say:

We have tried to deal with mosquitoes before, but to no avail. We want to find a boat for the mission since clearing the bush alone is a long term plan.”

As each day progresses, the situation gets worse just like that of Chiwembe Dam in Limbe. A recent state of the environment report says water in most urban rivers in Malawi have become unusable following reckless dumping of industrial waste into them.

The report further says Chimwankhunda Dam has diminished in size due to, among other reasons, heavy deforestation of the river’s catchment area and uncontrolled shifting cultivation of crops above the dam.

Infact, the use of chemical fertiliser in gardens surrounding the dam, which is washed down into the reservoir, is also said to be endangering fish species in the water body.

This raises eyebrows whether that means the end of both dams or not in terms of giving them face-lifts. A tour to both dams showed some wastes being dumped there, enough a sign that they are forgotten stories in the minds of those who have lived longer to recall how precious such facilities were before 1990s.

Forum for Environmental communicators (Feco) Malawi during a recent visit bemoaned lack of ownership by residents and city council despite efforts by some businesspersons to investing in the public facility.

“Management and ownership of the dam remains an issue. We are lobbying the authorities to invest in the dam to improve its life span,” Lucky Mkandawire, national coordinator for Feco Malawi chapter noted.

With funds from the aegis of the CSE Media Fellowships Programme it has been discovered Martin Misoda, a resident of Chimwankhunda while people face security and health challenges due to its obsolete state, the area no longer attracts local people and foreign tourists as before.

We no longer depend on it [dam]. Look at how Namasupuni has spread and grass grown. How do we fetch water or how can water flow into Chimwankhunda River?” he wonders.

Misoda blames escalating cases of Namasupuni on some residents who grow their crops close to the banks of the river. “Despite awareness people continue farming around. It is the fertiliser content that worsens the problem of Namasupuni and other weeds,” says Misoda.

Misoda hints that residents need to be responsible and help redevelop Chimwankhunda Dam by among other things planting trees and teaming up with the corporate sector in removing weeds and Namasupuni.

Planting trees along the river (the reservoir), the only source of water for Chimwankhunda Dam could be the only means of checking on siltation from choking the dam,” he states.

Interviews with other residents show that the public works programme in 2004 by the Malawi Social Action Fund (Masaf) helped to preserve the dam, but the phasing out of the project halted the initiative.

Irked by the situation some corporate institutions have over the years declared passion to revamp its natural beauty but issues of security are still a problem when it comes to protecting them.

One of them Blantyre-based businessperson Vikheshi Vanzara recently planted 500 trees around the dam. But a visit to the site showed that less than 100 trees have survived due to security reasons.

“There is need for civic education on the need to care for the dam and trees we plant. Mind you, this can generate revenue for city authorities through weddings and parties. Some people can also have a picnic to the area. At the same time Blantyre Water Board (BWB) can as well tap water from it,” he says.

Vanzara thinks it is illogical to neglect the dam just like that yet the facility can be used to harvest rainwater- a point Blantyre Water Board management ruled out, saying they have no control over the dam even that of Chiwembe except for Mudi.

The situation is different from other dams such as Mulunguzi Dam in Zomba and Malingunde Dam in Lilongwe, some of the country’s biggest dams in the country in that they are fully controlled by government through Lilongwe Water Board (LWB) and Southern Region Water Board (SRWB).

The two dams which are situated outside the two cities are properly manned with security guards and extra staff that ensure that sanitation and preservation of these water boards is almost 100 percent.

While Blantyre City Council maintains that they have plans for Chimwankhunda and Chiwembe Dams, their efforts await fate of a legal battle over ownership with the Malawi Housing Corporation (MHC).

To deal with Namasupuni, the Malawi Industrial Research and Technology Development Centre (MIRTDC) has come up with a concept proposing the control of Namasupuni infestation by introducing hyacinth based enterprises in communities surrounding infested areas such as Chimwankhunda and Chiwembe dams.

The communities within the project areas would be mobilised into self-help groups (SHG) that would be provided production and business skills and technologies. Among promoted products would be water hyacinth based paper, handcrafts including chairs and stools, building materials, mushroom growing and compost manure production.

But the Lions Club of Blantyre thinks it is time for the charity organisation to lobby city council authorities to do something such as civic education on the importance of the dam besides intensifying publicity.

The move is aimed at bringing sponsorship to clean up the dam and plant more trees. Talks between city authorities and Lions Club of Blantyre are on next month to see how best to improve the dams.

This article was produced under the aegis of the CSE Media Fellowships Programme

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