Solar power keeps the water flowing in Malawi

Following a good harvest in 2017, Malawi’s hunger crisis has eased for the time being. But it’s only a matter of time before the next drought or flood. Find out how a solar pump is helping one community prepare for future natural disasters.

By Andrew Brown
A girl stands by a water pump, Malawi
UNICEF Malawi/2017/Eldson Chagara
24 January 2018

BLANTYRE, Malawi, 24 January 2018 – It’s early morning at Namera Primary School, located in the countryside outside Malawi’s second city of Blantyre. Thirteen- year-old Lucy Chalire emerges from a classroom in her blue and yellow school uniform, smiling broadly after completing her end-of-year maths exam. Lucy attends school every day and is third in her class, but it wasn’t always this way.

“I used to drink water from the shallow wells,” Lucy says. “I had diarrhoea so many times. I would stay at home for around two weeks until I got better. I missed a lot of lessons, but I always tried to catch up by copying notes from my friends.”


A girl sits at a desk in school, Malawi
UNICEF Malawi/2017/Eldson Chagara
Lucy smiles after completing her end of year exam at Namera Primary School. Though she is now among the top students in her class, she previously missed many days of school because the water she was drinking made her sick.
Water scarcity and time poverty

Even when Lucy was well, water was a problem. She took turns with her mother walking 5 km to collect water from the nearest standpipe. “There were so many people waiting at the well,” she says. “Sometimes I had to wait all day and would come home in the dark. I was afraid the village hooligans would attack me. Once I got tired and dropped the water bucket, and my mother scolded me for coming home without any water.”

During the regular droughts that hit the area, things got even worse for the family of maize farmers. “Last year we only harvested three and a half bags of maize,” Lucy says. “It’s not enough for a family of five. I tried not to skip class, but I had nothing to eat. Going out was too much, I had no energy.”

Lucy’s mother, Benalita, recalls the lowest point, when Lucy’s brother Andrew got very ill. “We took him to the health centre,” Benalita says. “They told me he had cholera. He stayed there for a week. I was so scared – I thought I was going to lose my son.”


A woman pays for water, Malawi
UNICEF Malawi/2017/Eldson Chagara
Lucy’s mother Benalita pays 10 kwacha for a bucket of water at the tap in Kunja village. Before the pump was installed, their family had to walk 5 km every day to collect water.
Going deeper underground

In 2015, things began to look up for the village. UNICEF contractors arrived to install the solar powered water pump. “I was so excited when the pump came because I knew I could drink safe water,” Lucy says. “The whole community helped. People were digging trenches. My mother helped fetch water to make concrete for the pump.”

As well as the school, it provides water for Lucy’s village of Kunja and another nearby village, Chamba. Pump operators come every day to test the water quality and check chlorine levels.

“We can drill much deeper for a solar-powered pump than a hand pump, which means we can reach water even during a drought when the water table drops,” UNICEF Malawi’s Chief of Water Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) Paulos Workneh comments. “It’s low maintenance and should last for at least 10 years. And solar power is cheaper, environment-friendly and more sustainable than relying on expensive diesel generators.”


A water tank, Malawi
UNICEF Malawi/2017/Eldson Chagara
Children walk past the main water tank in the village, which stores 10,000 litres of pumped water. It uses gravity to feed water through pipes to taps in multiple locations.
Resilient communities

To be truly resilient, both infrastructure and communities need to be able to withstand shocks and natural disasters. Kunja village not only has a water pump that can keep working through droughts, it also has an engaged community that understands the value of safe water, and is dedicated to protecting it.

A committee comprised of representatives from local villages raises money to pay tap attendants and pump operators, and to make basic repairs. They are currently in the process of holding a fundraiser to plant a garden in the village – fed by the pump – so they can sell produce to make money for major repairs.

Perhaps this sense of pride and ownership is not surprising. The solar pump has transformed life in this remote community. The number of children at Namera Primary School has increased from 300 to 449 as a direct result of the pump.

“The learners have water to drink and to wash their hands after using the toilet,” Headmaster Kapalamula says. “Our school grades have improved because of better attendance. We’re attracting better teachers and they stay for longer. Our school has become a desirable place to work, because of the pump.”

For families like Lucy’s the change has been even more profound. She hasn’t been sick once since the solar pump was installed. “It feels so good not to be ill,” she says. “And I don’t have to walk to the next village to get water. I’m doing much better in school. I would like to go on to secondary school and become a doctor to help my fellow Malawians.”

With continued access to safe water, Lucy has every chance of making her dream a reality.