George Mhango
February 21, 2012

Today, several rivers and streams in Africa are playing a vital role not only in water supply but also power generation, although there are pros and cons as far as local ecosystems are concerned. One of such rivers is Lichenya in Malawi.

As George Mhango reports, waters of river Lichenyi could help to end deforestation; poor health and promote businesses in Bando.

Leticia Namwendo, 48, walks a distance of eight kilometers to have her maize grounded so she has food for her husband and six children and grandchildren.

The walking issue aside, Namwendo has to spend time fetching firewood in the prohibitive Mulanje Mountain due to conservation rules or being forced to buy, source money to buy paraffin and candles so her children can study 24/7.

“I occasionally have no money for firewood to meet cooking needs or even buy paraffin and candles so my children can study. The situation is unbearable,” she says.

Namwendo further says for a woman in Bondo, sewing and other activities by candlelight or kerosene lamps is the common reality after daylight hours,” she observes.

Some of the women carrying sand from the river and heaping at the central place where a tractor collects for construction works at the scheme

Continued use of candles and kerosene is also, contrary to the World Bank in 2008 which says kerosene lamps not only offers poor light but are also known to be the cause of a host of health problems in women and children. The report further says kerosene is a highly flammable dangerous fossil fuel that emits vapors. “If kerosene is accidentally ingested, the vapors can cause coughing, dizziness, headaches, sore throat, unconsciousness and respiratory problems,” it says.
Loveness Phamba, 42, a mother of five also says women face problems each time staff at Bondo health centre refer them to Mulanje District Hospital because either the equipment need electricity or there is no medical expert.

“The nearby health centre is also affected because most of the medical equipment needs electricity. Even preserving guava, pineapples, and oranges for business purposes to sustain our daily life cannot work,” Phamba states.

She notes that the area of Bondo is rich in a pineapple and banana and other perishable crops which if well preserved could boost one’s lifestyle people and become self reliant.

Phamba explains that most people grow a lot of fruits which should have been processed right there only if commercial farmers and communities were connected.

“We are losing a lot in terms of gaining cash from what we grow such as bananas, sugarcanes, avoid pears pineapples, tomatoes and more citrus fruits,” she says.

Namwendo and Phamba are among thousands of people who are not yet connected to the national power grid by the Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi (Escom) or the Rural Electrification Programme currently in the sixth phase, according to the authorities.

Lack of power in Bondo and many other villages in senior chief Mabuka translates into complete darkness at night or limited light generated by candles or kerosene lamps.

Problems that communities face vindicate that only 8% of the country’s 13 million people are connected to the national power grid, a source of power that has become increasingly unreliable due to power blackouts.

However, such power related hiccups would be history following the construction of a micro hydro power project by Mulanje Renewable Energy Agency as an implementing institution on behalf of Mulanje Mountain Conservation Trust (MMCT).

Construction of machine foundation in the Power House underway at the Power House

Most people feel this would bring sigh of relief because the project is likely to generate 88 megawatts for use by 4000 families in the area where communities did not even dream of being connected to the national grid any time sooner.

The project pegged at K60 million funding from the European Union (EU) will generate 75 kilowatts of power using Lichenya River whose source is Mulanje Mountain. The power will be provided to direct and indirect beneficiaries by March, 2012.

MuREA Projects coordinator, Vincent Gondwe says that the amount caters for salaries and buying of power generation equipment and construction.

“Almost 4000 households and business enterprises are to be connected in the first phase. Community assets such as Kabichi Primary, Malowa CDSS and Bondo Health Centre should have power during the first phase,” he said.

Gondwe added that currently, canals have been completed, power house of electricity adding that the necessary equipment for generation of electricity is available.

“Currently, we are working on transmission lines. We have requested the Department of Forestry in Mulanje to provide us with poles after we discovered that metal poles were costly. Imagine, one metal pole costs K 45 000,” Gondwe said.

The steering committee says that those with no cash but have agricultural produce will do the barter system to ensure more communities are connected.

“While we want to deal with deforestation, our major priority is also to bring electricity to the health centre, schools and business entities. At the same time we shall encourage households to use stoves that consume less firewood and charcoal,” Gondwe stated.

He said there is a small provision of money for business centres to buy electrical appliances such as refrigerators and entertainment sets for their business to improve.

“Not all will benefit from the small provision of money because some of them are well to do due to the growth of bananas, tea and other agricultural products,” Gondwe hinted.

MuREA Project officer, Horace Lumbe also said the power project seeks to restrain people from cutting down trees in the tourist destination district in the name of searching for firewood.

“People will have to use electricity in their homes, business premises and public facilities such as schools and health centres. Previously, tree conservation in Mulanje mountain was a problem hence the idea by MMCT to have the project,” Lumbe said.

“We are busy with excavation of pits in all the seven villages where poles will be erected. So far poles have been treated so as to increase their lifespan,” he stated.

Communities and public officials are now urged to contract recognised electrical companies to wire their houses, offices and business premises before any connection.

The micro-hydro power project is one of the sixteen schemes that will be implemented in Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Malawi will have another such scheme once the pilot phase of connecting 400 families in senior chief Mabuka is finished.

Gondwe said those who are part of the construction committee have since left for Zimbabwe where similar initiatives are in progress just to exchange ideas on the project.

The micro hydro power project is just in line with the continued Presidential directive made during the launch of the forestry season for generation of electricity in rural areas to counter issues of climate change, land and environmental degradation.

Most communities in the area have spoken in praise of the micro-hydro power project saying besides improved business opportunities, women will not have difficulties when attending to maternal services at a Bondo health centre in the area.
Nearly 95% of the country’s electricity supply is provided by hydropower from a cascading group of interconnected hydroelectric power plants located on the middle part of the Shire River, which flows through the Mwabvi Wildlife reserve in the south, and a mini-hydro in the northern region on the Wovwe River.

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