by Pilirani Semu-Banda
BLANTYRE, Dec 24 (IPS) - Many communities around the world may take water for granted; but for those living along Malawi’s longest river, the Shire, water is something to die for. The 400 kilometre long river is the main outlet of Lake Malawi as it flows south into the Zambezi River.
While the Shire River is the most convenient water source for people living on its banks, it is also home to killer crocodiles. Women and children, required by tradition to fetch water for their households, are most at risk from the crocodile attacks.
"In one area in Machinga, locals estimate almost three deaths a month," states the United Nations Development Programme’s 2006 Human Development Report on Malawi.
Agnes Wilson, now in her late 50s, survived a crocodile attack seven years ago while fetching water from the Shire River in the south of the country. She escaped with her life but lost the use of her right arm.
"The crocodile attacked me just as I dipped the bucket I was using to draw water into the river. The beast tried to drag me to the deep end (of the) river, but I was luckier than others who have died. I was rescued by some men who were passing by," she recalls.
Despite almost losing her life, Wilson braves the crocodiles every day to fetch water. There is no other option for her and her community; the borehole nearest to her village is 15 kilometres away.
"I have just accepted the risk I face every time I go to the river. Either I die of thirst or die while trying to fetch water...I may die fighting for survival if a crocodile attacks me again," says Wilson.
There are no statistics available for the crocodile population in Malawi, but people like Wilson claim there are many, especially in the Shire River.
Traditional leaders in the south of the country, especially those from the Lower Shire Valley, have accused government of caring more about crocodiles than human beings.
Malawi is a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which limits the culling of various animals, including crocodiles. Before the country signed up to CITES in 1982, it used to kill about 800 crocodiles annually; under the agreement, this number has now been reduced to 200 per year.
WaterAid, an international non-governmental organisation (NGO) that helps the world’s poorest people gain access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene education, indicated in a 2003 study that up to 44,000 people in the area had no access to safe water and had to resort to the crocodile-infested river for their water needs.
A programme officer for WaterAid in Malawi, James Longwe, says he knows of three women in Machinga who have been seriously injured by crocodiles while fetching water.
"One of the women lost an arm, while the other two have very deep wounds on different parts of their bodies following the attacks," says Longwe.
He says that some communities have lost count of the number of people who have been attacked by crocodiles.
Longwe adds that WaterAid, in partnership with local assemblies and a local NGO called Target for National Relief and Development, is helping communities at risk of crocodile attacks to have access to safe water by providing a gravity-fed water supply.
"We have managed to provide...safe water to 18,000 people. We hope to reach every one of the 44,000 people in need of safe water by the year 2011," says Longwe.
Crocodile attacks are not the only dangers facing communities along the Shire River.
The water quality from the river is itself poor: waterborne diseases such as cholera, diarrhea and dysentery are perennial problems in the area.
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) recorded over 4,000 cases of cholera, a disease associated with poor sanitation, and lack of hygiene and access to potable water, in the Shire region over a three month period last year.
In its planned Humanitarian Action Report for 2007, UNICEF says it is supporting cholera prevention awareness campaigns, helping construct and rehabilitate wells and sanitary facilities in 400 schools and 150 community-based childcare centres, and undertaking sanitary surveys of water sources.
The agency also says that it is providing buckets with messages in local languages about the safe handling of water and disposal of excreta and solid waste, providing soap and detergents -- and disseminating hygiene messages on prevention of cholera and other diseases.
The Malawi Millennium Development Goal (MDG) Report 2007 indicates that the country is making good progress towards reaching the MDG target which calls for the reduction by half of the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water.
The report states that access to water resources has significantly improved, from about 47 percent in 1992 to 75 percent in 2006.
"At this rate of change, the projection shows that by 2015 about 94 percent of the population will have sustainable access to an improved water source, which is above the MDG target of 73 percent," says the report.