The Politics of Water 3: Area Mechanics in Malawi

by Naomi Oates, re-posted from University of Sheffield

Competing narratives surround the role of ‘area mechanics’ in Malawi

In November 2017 I started my ‘politics of water’ blog as an outlet to share experiences and findings from my research in rural Malawi on water governance and service sustainability.

The first instalment describes my initial impressions of Balaka District while the second explores the relationship between extension workers and rural communities.

This might have left you wondering – what about everyone else?


Area Mechanics receive hands-on training in water point repairs (Author’s own)

Water services in Malawi are decentralised, at least in theory.  This means two things. Firstly, district councils, together with district water offices, are mandated to develop and monitor water infrastructure in rural areas.

Secondly, communities are expected to maintain and repair their water points with minimal external assistance. For more serious problems, local ‘area mechanics’ are their first port of call, followed by the district water office.

In reality, district water offices are severely under resourced, there are currently few area mechanics, and the effectiveness of community-based management varies considerably. However, where they are present, area mechanics are thought to play an important role in keeping water points functioning.

Area Mechanics: volunteers or entrepreneurs?

So what is an area mechanic? This sounds like a simple question, but the answers are complex and contradictory.

The area mechanics Thoko interviewed in Balaka for her MSc research tended to consider themselves, foremost, as volunteers working for the greater good of the community. After all, they were selected from the local community and have strong social ties with the people they serve. An area mechanic may be a relative, a neighbour or a fellow churchgoer, even the village headman himself. Trustworthiness was emphasised by communities as an important criteria.


This training manual describes area mechanics as ‘artisans in advanced hand pump repair operating on a payment basis’ (GoM 2015)

The depiction of area mechanics as volunteers has been echoed in my own conversations with extension staff and NGO workers, but in combination with another term – entrepreneur. According to national policy, area mechanics are meant to operate as independent businesspersons. They are given training and a few basic tools, after which they are expected to make a small profit to sustain their operations. They are also encouraged to sign written contracts with communities to clarify payment for services.

This model is clearly aimed at economic viability and is meant to incentivise area mechanics by providing them with an income. Arguably, the model has failed to gain traction locally because it ignores the social context in which area mechanics operate.

A third view is that area mechanics are integral to formal water governance arrangements – in other words part of, or plugging a gap in, the government’s extension system. This may not be stated explicitly, but is implicit in the use of government issued ID cards.

To give another example, area mechanics are sometimes (but not always) introduced to communities by a government representative in order to establish their legitimacy. Several of the area mechanics Thoko spoke to wanted their role to be formalised to enable them to negotiate fees with communities, or conversely in the hope of receiving material and financial support from government.

The ambiguity of water mechanics

Despite appearances, none of these narratives is mutually exclusive, and they may be employed at different times depending on the context. As one extension worker explained to me:

“Area mechanics are entrepreneurs by design and should make communities aware of that. They are supposed to have a signed agreement. The area mechanic needs to be paid, a little.”


Area mechanics often prefer working as a team – two heads being better than one! (Author’s own)

He then went on to clarify:

“It is not payment as such but a token of appreciation. It is up to them if they want to work for free. However they shouldn’t deny assistance to a Water Point Committee just because they don’t have money.”

The ambiguity surrounding area mechanics can be confusing and could be viewed as a failure of policy (or its implementation). But, in my view, that conclusion would be overly simplistic and misses the point.

The co-existence of these different narratives, or interpretations of policy, leaves room for negotiation and pragmatism. These are arguably important ingredients for success, especially when adapting policies to local realities. In short, the role of area mechanics in Malawi’s water governance system is not yet set in stone.

In addition to my PhD fieldwork this blog draws on previous work by the authors under the UPGro Hidden Crisis project. Check out our report on the political economy of rural water supplies in Malawi.

“They Gave Us Breakfast and a Good Meal”: Roles, Perceptions and Motivations of Water Point Area Mechanics in the Maintenance of Borehole Hand Pumps in Balaka District, Malawi

by Thokozani Mtewa, Evans Mwathunga, Wapumuluka, Mulwafu

Abstract

“In the rural areas of Malawi, water is accessed mostly through boreholes. The borehole and hand pump functionality concept is currently getting a central place in development agenda for the provision of affordable and safe water supply under the Sustainable Development Goals.

A study on area mechanics and borehole functionality was conducted in Balaka district in Malawi in 2017. The study used qualitative research methods of data collection using
political economy analysis to understand the role of Area Mechanics (AMs), their relationships with water point committees and other stakeholders, their perceptions,
motivations and challenges. Questionnaires and an audio recorder were employed to
collect data from individual interviews and focus groups.

The study findings revealed that even though the system of AMs is well defined in
policy, in practice things are done differently. The AMs defined their jobs differently; from entrepreneurs (10%) to community volunteers (90%) and the sizes of catchment areas of AMs are mostly divided informally and unequally which affects service delivery.
The study also found AMs are motivated by both monetary and non-monetary benefits
from the communities under their jurisdictions.

Consequently, overall the level of incentives and disincentives seem to have affected
their maintenance service provision as well as their relationships with other water point
stakeholders. For proper functioning of an AM system as part of groundwater infrastructure, this paper therefore proposes the need to revise the policy and procedures in training, selection and allocation of AMs as well regular short term trainings to area mechanics at district level.”

Source: Conference Abstract

An Analysis of Hand Pump Boreholes Functionality in Malawi

by  Prof T. Mkandawire, E. Mwathunga, A.M. MacDonald, H.C. Bonsor, S. Banda, P.,Mleta, S. Jumbo, J. Ward, D. Lapworth, L. Whaley, R.M. Lark

Abstract

A survey on functionality of boreholes equipped with hand pumps was undertaken in five districts in Malawi in 2016. The survey aimed at developing a robust evidence base and understanding of the complex and multifaceted causes of high failure rates of groundwater supplies in Africa in the wake of climate change. This would guide sustainable future investments in water and sanitation projects.A stratified two-stage sampling strategy was adopted.

The results from the survey indicate that 74% of hand pump boreholes (HPBs) are functional at any one point; 66% of HPBs passed the design yield of 10 liters per minute; 55% passed the design yield and also experienced less than one month downtime within a year; and 43% of HPBs which passed the design yield and reliability, also passed the World Health Organisation (WHO) standards of water quality.

The survey also assessed the village level Water Management Arrangements at
each water point. Results indicate that the majority of the Water Management Arrangements (86%) are functional or highly functional.

The initial exploration of the data shows no simple relationship between the physical functionality and Water Management Arrangements.

Source: Conference Abstract

Photo: SADC-GMI (via Twitter)

Facing the groundwater threats and opportunities in Southern Africa

This week, regional and international water experts have converged on Johannesburg at the 1st Groundwater Conference of the Southern African Development Community (SADC). The event has been convened by the SADC Groundwater Management Institute (GMI) in assocciation with a number of partners including GRIPP

UPGro has a strong presence at the event as part of the build-up to Africa Water Week next month, in Gabon:

  • Opening Keynote: Karen G. Villholth (GroFutures) and Jude Cobbing.
    “Adapting to Climate Change in the SADC Region – A Focus on Groundwater.”
  • Presentation: Theresa Mkandawire (Hidden Crisis) presented “An analysis of hand pump boreholes functionality in Malawi.”
  • Keynote speaker: Alan McDonald. (Hidden Crisis/GroFutures) “Resilience of rural
    groundwater supplies to climate change”
  • Presentation: Thokozani Mtewa,Evance Mwathunga and Wapulumuka Mulwafu.
    (Hidden Crisis) “They gave us breakfast and a good meal’: Roles, perceptions and
    motivations of water point area mechanics in the maintenance of borehole handpumps in Balaka district, Malawi.”
  • Keynote speaker: Dr Callist Tindimugaya “Groundwater and African National Development Strategies”

You can follow the conference on Twitter: #gwconference2018

photo : Prof Theresa Makandawire presenting UPGro Hidden Crisis work in Malawi (credit BGS via Twitter)

 

Championing environmental sustainability in Malawi schools: inspiring the next generation

By Naomi Oates, Fiskani Kondowe, and Evance Mwathunga (UPGro Hidden Crisis)

 ‘This activity has been inspiring for us and we will work very hard to reach university and be able to carry out experiments using big machines which we have seen from your presentations’ – a learner at Pirimiti Secondary School, in Zomba district

In March 2018 a team of motivated scientists from ‘Malawi Girls in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics’ (MAGSTEM) at Chancellor College, a scholar from the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures (University of Sheffield) facilitated by an UPGro researcher teamed up to reach out to disadvantaged schools in Zomba, Malawi. The talks were inspired by our realisation from UPGro research survey that learners in rural schools in Malawi, in spite of their curiosity to know what we were doing in our groundwater research, they lacked knowledge regarding environmental sustainability including water. The aim of the workshops, therefore, was to encourage students to care for their local environment and to inspire them to pursue careers in the sciences.

Photos 2 & 3: The water purification experiment

During the workshops students from Naisi and Pirimiti Secondary Schools brainstormed the threats to water resources in their area, highlighting deforestation, pollution and climate change as big challenges. Groups of girls and boys then tried a simple water purification experiment using a plastic bottle, cloth filter and (the magic ingredient) activated charcoal. They were excited to find that it really works! After a few minutes, clean water started to appear at the bottom of the bottle. Not only does the cloth filter out big particles but the charcoal acts as a coagulant for the smaller particles, making they stick together in lumps. This process is very similar to the methods used in real-life water treatment works – places that these students could work in future as water chemists or engineers.

The MAGSTEM volunteers concluded with an inspiring talk about career options and promised to return with more information. As a team, we were very impressed by the bright sparks we met at Naisi and Pirimiti Secondary Schools and encouraged them to work hard for their exams. Several students said they were keen to study at university in future, in subjects like medicine, chemistry or maths. We hope to welcome them soon!

In his concluding remarks, the Naisi head teacher wrapped it all:

‘We appreciate your effort of showing the students that science is fun and that students can be innovative and resourceful by using locally available resources to better their lives. Your talk has cleared the myths and stereotypes among our rural learners especially girls that science is tough ’.

Photo credits: Naomi Oates, Fiskani Kondowe, and Evance Mwathunga

A Malawian researcher takes UPGro knowledge to up-and-coming scientists in college

Interview by Isaiah Esipisu, PAMACC News Agency – www.pamacc.org

Patrick Makuluni is a lecturer in the Mining Department of the University of Malawi, the Polytechnic. Makuluni holds MSc in Mineral Exploration and Mining Geology from Curtin University in Australia and BSc in Civil Engineering from University of Malawi, the Polytechnic.

Recently, the scientist published a paper showing how to recognise where sediments (the exact piece of rock) are coming from by using the geometrical properties of the sediments as opposed to the more expensive methods that have been used previously.

The 30 year old scientist is a family man and his life has always been around his children, work, research and fun. He has developed an interest in Hydrogeology and he would like pursue a PhD in Petroleum Engineering.

[IE] How did you know about the UPGro project, and how did you join the team? Continue reading A Malawian researcher takes UPGro knowledge to up-and-coming scientists in college

Debating real-world community-based management of water points

Community-management has been the mainstay of rural water supplies in Africa, and in many other parts of the world, but is it the only way? Are there better alternatives? In this lively webinar, researchers from the UPGro Hidden Crisis project discuss their research with RWSN members:

Do you have anything to add? Leave your comments below.

African governments acknowledging the Hidden Crisis

re-posted from UPGro Hidden Crisis


Speed read:

  • Survey results of rural water points in Uganda, Ethiopia and Malawi presented to government ministry chiefs
  • ‘Functionality’ of a water point is more than a binary is water flow at the time of inspection? YES/NO
  • Government partners see the value in how the research can improve monitoring and evaluation of rural water supplies.

Continue reading African governments acknowledging the Hidden Crisis

Can road design boost water security in rural regions?

re-posted from GRIPP

Roads for Water is integrating road construction and small water infrastructure to harvest rainwater from small catchments for productive use, while reducing road damage and simplifying road maintenance. Improving road drainage design is reducing soil erosion and increasing groundwater recharge. Furthermore, using roads for resource capture can prevent dangerous and inconvenient flooding, and in some cases pave the way for sand harvest and dune management, tree planting and protection of other natural resources.

Starting as an UPGro Catalyst Project, Roads for Water is now scaling up across Ethiopia, Kenya, Bangladesh, Malawi, Uganda and elsewhere with support from the Global Resilience Partnership (USAID, Rockefeller Foundation, SIDA and the Zurich Foundation) and the World Bank. The Roads for Water Learning Alliance was established to bring researchers, implementers, policy makers, trainers, donors and other stakeholders together to share knowledge and to support roadwork for natural resource management and climate resilience. The initiative recently received the second-place prize in the Zilient 2017 Resilience Awards.

MetaMeta and Mekelle University encourage those interested to become part of the learning alliance to contact MetaMeta at marta@metameta.nl

In partnership with: MetaMeta Research / Mekelle University- UPGro / Global Resilience Partnership) USAID SIDA Rockefeller Foundation World Bank

Photo: Local communities in Ethiopia diverting water from a culvert to a percolation pond for groundwater recharge. Photo: Kifle Woldearegay/Mekelle University.

Investigating water governance arrangements in Balaka District, Malawi – news from the field

by Naomi Oates, Grantham institute, UPGro Hidden Crisis

My first impressions of Malawi? It is hot! Temperatures are reaching 37°C in Balaka district at the moment. Around midday it is particularly difficult to move around in the scorching sun – much preferable to sit under a shady tree until the heat dissipates a little (usually it becomes bearable by 3pm).

The landscape is very dry. Sometimes there is a gentle cooling breeze, but that can also kick up a lot of dust. Fortunately, the rains will be starting in November, which will cool things down and allow the crops to grow.

Power cuts are a frequent occurrence at that moment, as the country cannot generate enough to meet demand and electricity has to be rationed. The main energy source is hydropower – reservoirs are at their lowest at this time of year.

MalawiJoint1
From L-R: The landscape around Alufeyo village, Balaka; Households pay 300 kwacha a year to use this waterpoint.

My first week in the field was spent settling in to the District Water Office in Balaka, getting to know the staff members. This will be my home for the next 4-5 months (with a break to return to the UK for Christmas).

The office is located just behind the market in Balaka town. It has four rooms and lots of storage containers for equipment and spare parts. I sit in the same room as the District Water Development Office – the boss – but he is often away for meetings.

There are around 49 staff employed by the office in total. Many are based at the treatment works and dam in Ntcheu (the neighbouring district) which supplies Balaka with piped water. There are far fewer staff working on groundwater supplies – namely, the boreholes with handpumps provided to rural communities. It is the latter that my research is focussing on.

In my second week the UpGro Hidden Crisis survey team arrived – the project my PhD is linked to. The team are investigating the multiple causes of waterpoint failure. This includes the functioning of mechanical components in the hand pump, borehole characteristics (e.g. siting and yield) and various aspects of water quality. Discussions are also held with communities to discuss the history of the waterpoint – its construction, breakdowns and repairs, and local arrangements to collect fees and maintain the handpump.

Every waterpoint has a different set of problems – in the case of Alufeyo the community were contributing money for repairs, and showed willingness to pay, but the borehole has been badly sited and produces a low yield.

MalawiJoint2
From L-R: The UpGro researchers carry out a pumping test to measure the water yield of this borehole; Measuring water temperature, pH, conductivity and salinity.

Next week I hope to accompany the Water Monitoring Assistant (Mr Nkwate) on a Red Cross project that will be drilling and rehabilitating boreholes, and training Water Point Committees (community volunteers).

The objective of my research is to understand the role of different actors at the district-level in developing and sustaining rural water services – how they get their jobs done and the networks of relationships on which they draw. One aspect of this is to explore the interface between the district government offices and the communities they support.