Monday, January 26, 2009

Rains Expose Poor Sanitation

by Pilirani Semu-Banda
LILONGWE, Jan 23 (IPS) - Zimbabwe - where cholera has claimed more than 2,700 lives so far according to the Red Cross - is not the only southern African country facing increased disease as rains set in across the region. Malawi is also battling a cholera outbreak which has killed 19 people since the onset of the rainy season, an unusually high death toll.

Up to 485 cases of the epidemic have since been registered and treated. World Health Organisation records from the 2007/2008 rainy season indicate not even a single cholera case was registered in the country's capital, Lilongwe, last year, although up to 20 deaths and 1,022 cases were documented in nine of Malawi's 27 districts.

Apart from the current outbreak in Lilongwe, one other cholera case was treated in the country's commercial capital, Blantyre, two weeks ago, but this was imported from Zimbabwe, according to Malawi's principal secretary for health Chris Kang'ombe.

"Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in Blantyre treated a Zimbabwean truck driver who had cholera. He recovered and has since returned to Zimbabwe," said Kang'ombe.

There is a lot of cross-border trade and movement between Malawi and neighbouring Zimbabwe and Malawi health authorities have been on alert and intensifying civic education on cholera to ensure that the serious Zimbabwe cholera situation does not spread into the country, according to Kang'ombe.

But cholera is not primarily spread directly from person to person. The country's health experts have attributed the problem to lack of safe water combined with poor sanitation and poor hygiene.

The outbreak has hit Lilongwe, and surrounding communities hardest. Kang'ombe said all the people that have died were resident in Malawi's fastest-growing city which has large populations living in slums with little access to safe water. Cholera is transmitted through contaminated water or food.

"We encounter cholera outbreaks almost every rainy season when people who have little or no access to safe water resort to using untreated water from swamps," Kang'ombe told IPS.

The Banda clan, living on the outskirts of Lilongwe city, has lost two family members to the disease within a period of two weeks. Another member of the family was also infected but has recovered after treatment.

A clan member, Jabu Banda, said his aunt got ill with cholera two weeks ago and was admitted to one of the tents erected in Likuni, one of Lilongwe's high density areas, by the ministry of health specially to care for cholera victims. "She died two days after being taken to the health centre," said Banda.

He said his niece also started showing signs of cholera a week after the death in the family. "We took her to the health centre but she also died a day later," Banda said.

Banda said his cousin who played the role of guardian for the two victims was also diagnosed with cholera last week.

"She has just been discharged from the clinic but she is yet to recover fully. She is very weak," Banda told IPS.

In managing the outbreak, Malawi's Ministry of Health has erected special tents near local hospitals and within areas that have been highly affected by the cholera outbreak.

"The idea is to avoid mixing cholera patients with others admitted to hospitals for other less contagious illnesses," said Kang'ombe.

He said the outbreak would have been quickly contained if people had improved on their hygiene. Kang'ombe said a lot of people in townships and surrounding areas eat fresh foods such as fruits without washing them. Fruits such as mangos, bananas and pineapples are in abundance during the rainy season in Malawi.

"We are providing chlorine to households for them to be able treat their water. We are also stopping communities from preparing food at gatherings such as funerals and to avoid buying cooked food from streets to avoid contamination," he said.

The ministry has also cautioned people who handle corpses of cholera cases to be extra careful. Culturally, most communities in Malawi administer a bath to the dead just before burial.

Meanwhile, there are more fears of cholera outbreaks in other parts of Malawi – health officials are vigilant in the flood-prone areas of the country which include southern districts of Chikwawa and Nsanje, the lowest-lying areas of Malawi, which experience floods annually and where cholera epidemics are most common during the rainy season.

Floods have already affected 2,100 households in 21 villages in Nsanje district and 1,573 other families in Chikwawa district since the beginning of the New Year, according to government statistics from district commissioners' offices.

A task force comprising the Ministry of Health, United Nations Children's Fund – (UNICEF), World Health Organisation (WHO) and United Kingdom's Department For International Development (DFID) is currently working to promote civic education on hygiene and chlorination of water sources in the country to control further cholera outbreaks.

Malawi's rainy season runs from November to May and the country still has five more months to contend with cholera.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Climate Change Threatens Livelihoods

By Pilirani Semu-Banda

LILONGWE, Dec 26 - Climate change will affect the Zambezi River basin more severely than any other river system in the world, according to Kenneth Msibi, Water Policy and Strategy Expert for the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Increased floods, drought and increased levels of disease threaten lives and livelihoods all along the river’s length.

"Frequent floods and intense droughts are becoming more frequent occurrences in our region. We need to use our existing water resources as a catalyst for development so that we don’t get overwhelmed by the effects of climate change," said Msibi.

Coordinator for the Climate Change and Adaptation in Africa project, Miriam Kalanda-Sabola, told IPS that farming communities in Malawi and Tanzania, for instance, have in the past 30 years experienced considerable negative climate change effects in both semi-arid and high rainfall areas.

Throughout the basin, agriculture is mostly rain-fed, and the people of these states are facing declining agricultural productivity which is being linked to worsening poverty and increasing food insecurity.

The semi-arid areas of Tanzania have seen declining crop yields, poor livestock production, and increasing domestic animal diseases. Many communities have abandoned the production of traditional crops. But farmers in areas of high rainfall are also in difficulty.

"The high rainfall areas in Tanzania are facing declining soil fertility, stunted crop growth, destruction of mature crops in the field and stored ones," said Kalanda-Sabola.

In Malawi's semi-arid areas, communities are seeing increasing periods of hunger and loss of property due to floods while droughts have reduced grazing for livestock due to droughts.

Meanwhile, the high rainfall areas are experiencing soil erosion and frequent landslides, increasing incidence of malaria and loss of crops and animals due to floods.

"The most vulnerable victims facing the effects of the changes in climatic conditions are the poor, women, children, elders, people with less education, sick people and communities in areas with poor infrastructures and less social network," said Kalanda-Sabola.

New and increased levels of disease are also having a negative impact on agriculture, according to Professor Moses John Chimbari, Deputy Director at Harry Oppenheimer Okavango Research Centre (HOORC), a research institute at the University of Botswana.

He says droughts and floods due to rising temperatures are creating a conducive environment for diseases such as malaria and meningitis. He said there are already many more episodes of malaria in the riparian states because of the favourable atmosphere for mosquitoes that has already been created due to the climatic changes.

"This has a great impact on agriculture and the economies since people are sick most of the times and they are not being very productive," said Chimbari.

He said most countries in the Zambezi riparian states have little capacity to adapt to high incidence of diseases and that this makes many people even more vulnerable.

He worried that HIV/AIDS is also adding to these stresses.

"We need to reverse the trends that increase vulnerability to climate change through food security. We will actually be the most vulnerable region if we continue to be where we are now," said Chimbari.

The researcher called for states to improve their health facilities and be able to cope with the health hazards being posed by climate change.

The adaptation strategies that are being employed in Malawi include switching to drought-resistant crops like cassava, increased irrigation farming, growing early-maturing hybrid varieties of crops and the use of organic manure.

In Tanzania, farmers are also turning to drought resistant crops such as sunflowers, and employing small scale irrigation, improved social networks such as cooperatives and the use of improved seed varieties.

Kalanda-Sabola approves of all these strategies and further calls for more livestock farming -- especially in the high rainfall sites -- and timely access to vital and simple information on climate change and variability.

She says farmers in the region are being hampered by resource limitations including lack of enough crop land, lack of accessibility to loans and farm inputs. She underlines the need for a strengthening of capacity for implementation among communities.

"Most farmers are failing to meet transaction costs necessary to acquire adaptation measures as they also have no or little access to external markets," she said.

Harnessing the Zambezi

LILONGWE, Dec 2 - If the socio-economic development goals of the eight countries that share the Zambezi River basin are to be met, countries along the river should quickly implement plans towards managing water resources in an efficient, effective and sustainable manner.

This was the agreement made during the Fourth Zambezi Basin-wide Stakeholders Forum which took place in Malawi's capital, Lilongwe from Nov. 26-27.

The gathering, an annual event of stock-taking and strategising first held in 2005, focuses on managing the resources of the Zambezi basin. This year's forum was aimed at turning the Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) Strategy and implementation plan of the Zambezi river basin resources into action.

The IWRM spells out how the eight Zambezi Riparian States -- Angola, Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Zambia, Tanzania and Zimbabwe -- can share the benefits derived from the water resources of the Zambezi River Basin in a sustainable and equitable manner.

Malawi's Principal Secretary for irrigation and water development, Andrina Mchiela, alerted the forum to several serious warning signs concerning the water situation in the region. She said that many rivers in the water basin are now running dry before they reach the lakes or seas they previously emptied into. Across the region, water tables are drying up and wetlands are fast disappearing. She said there was need to speed up the process of implementing the IWRM to counter these negative developments.

The IWRM strategy addresses four issues, namely lack of coordinated water resources development, poor environmental management approaches, weak climate change adaptation measures and weak regional cooperation and integration mechanisms.

"There is need for a very careful management of the water resources in the Zambezi Water Basin," said Mchiela.

Mchiela said there is growing demand for fresh water in the region, which, she said, is currently using 50 percent of all fresh water sources.

"At the current trend, by 2025, we shall be using 75 percent of all the fresh water," said Mchiela.

Globally, up to one billion people lack clean water, two billion have no proper sanitation and seven billion will be faced with severe water shortages by 2015, according to Mchiela. She said the IWRM should be used to improve the situation, at least in the region.

"We need in-basin people that are dedicated towards finding solutions to these challenges," said Mchiela.

Another problem facing the Zambezi Basin is the impact of climate change. According to Kenneth Msibi, Water Policy and Strategy Expert for the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the Zambezi is the worst-affected basin in the world.

Frequent floods and intense droughts are expected to become even more frequent occurrences. In 2007 alone, Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe all experienced intense flooding which affected more than half a million people.

Msibi said that a large part of the population of six of the eight states along the Zambezi live below the poverty line and water management has a role to play in economic and social development for the region.

"The challenge is to use water as a catalyst for development," said Msibi. "We now need to see tangible actions if the region has to achieve poverty reduction and economic prosperity," said Msibi.

He said water, food and energy security can be realised from the Zambezi water basin, explaining that it is the biggest river basin in SADC with abundant water resources and good soils that need to be effectively utilised.

"There is so much potential in this water basin," said Msibi.

The Zambezi basin is home to over 40 million people, according to the 2007 IWRM Forum Report. The basin is reported to be rich in human, social, political, economic, natural and ecological diversity and has high potential for agriculture, fisheries, forestry, wildlife and hydroelectric power generation.

David Harrison, Senior Advisor and Consultant for Global Freshwater Team, called on the Zambezi water basin riparian states to learn from the effective management currently taking place on China's Yangtze River basin. The Yangtze is the world's third longest river.

Harrison cited flood control initiatives, constructing and operating of dams in ways that reduce impacts on the river and its aquatic populations as some of the projects that should be encouraged in the Zambezi water basin.

The formulation of the IWRM followed the Zambezi Watercourse Commission (ZAMCOM) agreement signed by the eight riparian states in July 2004. The countries indicated that they recognized the significance of the Zambezi watercourse as a major water resource in the region and the need to conserve, protect and sustainably utilise the resources of the basin. The states also committed themselves to ensure equitable and reasonable utilization and efficient management and sustainable development of the water basin resources.

The forum came up with resolutions to improve water reservoir management for improved food security and for the rehabilitation, management and monitoring of environmental-vulnerable areas in the basin.

The forum was attended by delegates from government ministries for environment, water, justice, finance, fisheries, forestry, agriculture and energy, non-governmental organisations working in environment and water sectors, traditional leaders who represented their communities, universities and research institutions, parliamentarians, private sector, and local government leaders.

Elections Get Ugly For Women

Nov 24 - Malawi’s primary elections are getting ugly for women candidates. Shoving, derogatory songs and being pelted with stones are just some of the intimidating tactics aimed at discouraging women from contesting the primary elections that will select candidates for the parliamentary polls in May 2009.

Gertrude Nya Mkandawire, one of the strongest members of parliament (MP) for the ruling Democratic People’s Party (DPP), recently withdrew from the primaries in her Mzimba Solora constituency, in the north, where she was running against 10 men.

"I can’t take it anymore," Nya Mkandawire told IPS. "I have faced different kinds of intimidation from fellow contenders, who are all men."

Angry crowds sang demeaning songs and shoved her around at rallies. "They have been destroying my campaign materials, including flags and posters, in the night to discourage me from contesting," she added.

The last straw came when DPP committee members and primary delegates demanded money.

"They said I can only win the elections after I pay them some money and I didn’t find this proper," she told IPS.

The culture of handouts is common here during elections. Politicians distribute money, food and blankets to their constituents, claiming it is their way of sharing wealth.

Gender activist Veronica Njikho says the practice of freebies disadvantages women politicians because men already have an established financial capacity that women do not.

"Only 23 percent of women have an equal say as their partners in economic matters at home and they do not have the same financial muscle as their male counterparts when it comes to politics," Njikho said.

Women drop out

Njikho is a champion of the 50/50 Campaign, led by government and 42 civil society groups, to boost women’s participation in politics and decision-making positions.

The Campaign has condemned the intimidation and harassment of women candidates. Violence is marring some rallies for men candidates as well.

"There is a lot of political violence being reported from all corners of Malawi and this is discouraging a lot of women from participating in the elections," said Njikho.

The gender expert explained that most women do not want to be associated with or be victims of abuse: "Naturally, women are not violent people."

An unprecedented 425 women wanted to run for parliament at the onset of the 50/50 Campaign but only 200 persevered. "The rest dropped from the race mainly due to the harassment and intimidation," Njikho told IPS.

She fears that the growing reports of intimidation during the primaries will prompt more women to abandon politics.

The Campaign seeks to see women win at least half of the 193 seats in the national assembly, in keeping with the Southern African Development Community Protocol on Gender, signed in August, which mandates a 50 percent representation of women in government by 2015.

Malawi scores below the Sub-Saharan average of female representation in parliament, with women accounting for 14 per cent of its national assembly.

The biggest challenge for the Campaign, said Njikho, is the uneven political playing field. Men hold the top political positions, they support their fellow men and resist women candidates.

Leaders fail women

Lilian Patel, an MP and chair of the Malawi Parliamentary Women Caucus, blamed party leaders for these problems. Just like the DPP, the other main political parties -- the United Democratic Front (UDF) and the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) -- are headed by men.

"All political parties in the country have failed to put up deliberate efforts to ensure that women are propped up," said Patel, a UDF member.

On Nov. 13, a primary election in the lake district of Nkhatabay ended with a stampede, when DPP supporters started throwing stones after a dispute over eligible voters. Three women were contesting these primaries.

Meanwhile, Nya Mkandawire is not giving up on politics. She is considering running as an independent candidate or joining another party.

To discourage this choice, the DPP came up with a trick, she explained. DPP candidates collecting the nomination forms for the primaries had to sign a declaration that, in the event of losing, they would support the winners, and not run as independents or join other parties.

"The declaration would have been fair if the elections were fair but, in this case, we have to look for other alternatives if we have to stay in politics," said Nya Mkandawire.

Dodging stones and insults is not an alternative she will consider. Respect and safety for all women candidates, that is what she wants.

New Efforts for Citizen Power

Dr. Fletcher Tembo
Civil society organisations in Malawi are keen on the newly introduced Governance and Transparency Fund (GTF) which, they hope, will provide people with more power to ensure that there is proper governance and transparency in the country.

Up to 65 percent of Malawi's 13.1 million people live below the poverty line of less than a dollar per day, according to Malawi government statistics.

Malawi's transparency and accountability record is also not very good -- the country is ranked number 115 out of 180 countries in the 2008 Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI).

A new programme -- funded by the 130 million pound Governance and Transparency Fund (GTF) of the Department for International Development (DFID), the arm of the UK Government that manages Britain's aid to poor countries -- designed to help citizens hold their governments to account may help.

The "Strengthening Citizen Demand for Good Governance Through Evidence Based Approaches" programme -- which will be implemented in various African countries -- was launched in Malawi's capital on Nov. 19, 2008.

Overseas Development Institute (ODI) director Dr Fletcher Tembo said at the launch of the project that there is need to strengthen the country's budding democracy through participatory governance and social accountability.

Tembo explained that the programme is about facilitating citizen's voices through the engagement of civil society, independent media, elected representative and other non-state actors.

He said following the launch of the programme, a national coordinating organisation will be appointed to provide grants to the media, parliament and civil society organisations in their pursuit to intensify governance and transparency issues.

"The whole emphasis of the fund hinges on citizenry power. The programme would want to enable the citizens meet their aspirations better at the same time holding the government accountable," he said.

The Malawi Economic Justice Network (MEJN), a coalition of 100 civil society organizations, including NGOs, community based organisations, the media, trade unions and the academia, is excited about the GTF. MEJN works on social and economic governance.

MEJN executive director Andrew Kumbatira lauded the launch of the programme saying it would strengthen accountability.

"We need to progress as a country and we can only do that if there is good governance and if government is accountable on its spending," said Kumbatira. "The country's citizens therefore have a great role in monitoring government and this will be made possible with the fund," said Kumbatira.

He said there are already existing programmes in the country where citizens participate in holding government and political officials accountable but that these are minimal.

Kumbatira cited the Umunthu (human-ness in Chichewa) Initiative, where constituents are able to summon their member of parliament to explain how he has been representing them in the national assembly, as one of the programs where citizen participation is already working.

"Of course the Umunthu initiative is only happening in two of the country's 27 districts and the GTF will help in expanding such kind of program to all the districts," Kumbatira told IPS.

He also mentioned Budget Monitoring as another already-existing programme with citizen participation. This is implemented by MEJN and communities at local level hold local authorities in their assemblies accountable on public funds.

"Even the Budget Monitoring has lots of gaps as it is done in very few areas due to lack of resources," said Kumbatira.

Kumbatira also said with the GTF, citizens will be able to prevent legislators from misusing public funds the way they did last year when the passing of the Malawi national budget for 2007/2008 was held to ransom by a political impasse between the ruling and opposition parties in Parliament.

The delays in passing the budget affected the progress of development projects and the provision of essential services such as health and education as government could not procure enough supplies without the national budget.

The country's main opposition parties, the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) and the United Democratic Front (UDF), wanted the Speaker of the House to declare vacant the seats of parliamentarians who had crossed the floor to join President Bingu wa Mutharika's ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

The opposition parties were citing Section 65 of the Constitution, which stops legislators from leaving the parties that put them into power. Mutharika himself won the presidency under the UDF but dumped it after becoming president and went on to form the Democratic People's Party.

The budget which was supposed to be passed on June 2007 was not passed until September and Mutharika told people in a national radio broadcast that up to $2.2 million was wasted by Parliamentarians during the squabble which yielded no results. The parliamentarians who crossed the floor still have their seats in the national assembly.

"We want to see an end to such inconsiderate conduct by parliamentarians and we will use the GTF to work with citizens to ensure that transparency and accountability is the order of the day," Kumbatira told IPS.

*The Overseas Development Institute (ODI), Britain's leading independent think-tank on development and humanitarian issues, is driving the implementation of the "Strengthening Citizen Demand for Good Governance Through Evidence Based Approaches" in partnership with the Inter Press Service (IPS) Africa and CIVICUS.