One of the things that immediately struck me as we crossed the border into Malawi was how lush and green the landscape was. The stark difference between the vegetation here and the dusty yellow of Tanzania’s dry season landscape got me wondering about the extent to which the appearance of water might make the country more prosperous than its neighbor, and if not, why? I would need to do a great deal more research in order to do that question any justice, but here is some information I did find out.
-A higher proportion of Malawian villages have wells than in neighboring Tanzania. I spoke with a young woman who works on water access for Engineers Without Borders in Lilongwe (Malawi’s capital). She said that nearly all were buitlt by NGO’s and/or with foreign aid. In that regard international aid has served Malawi very well. The problem, however, is that most of the time countries and organizations come in, build wells, and leave; five years down the road the well falls into disrepair and there is neither the local knowledge or the equipment to fix it. As a result nearly half of the wells in Malawi are either completely broken or only marginally functional.
-Malawi does have more rain and more green vegetation than neighboring Tanzania. But not as much as one might think. The dry season lasts up to eight months. That can mean not a drop of rain for eight months. Because more surface area is covered with lakes and rivers plants stay greener longer. This does not necessarily translate into more water or food for locals. For one thing, Malawi has one of the highest population densities in all Africa. More than 80% of Malawians live in rural areas and practice subsistence farming either as their sole livelihood or to supplement a wage-based income. Because the population is so dense, water sources are more likely to be polluted and unsafe for drinking. The soil, even when hydrated, is of very poor quality, so often produces meager harvests. Most of the green vegetation that does thrive has adapted to the poor soil quatilty and lack of rain, and is not suitable for human consumption. The same vegetation is not indigenous to Tanzania, giving it the appearance of being drier.
Despite appearances, access to clean, safe water is still a critical problem here, and all over Africa. Luckily there are loads of organizations working on the issue. Check out Water for People, The Water Project, Water Aid, or Engineers Without Borders for more information.