One girls scoops water from a ground hole while three other girls watch.
In Malawi, girls retrieve water from a shallow hole in the ground. This water is murky and filled with contaminants.

Malawi: Water as far as the eye can see – but very few drops to drink

Key Takeaways:

  • • Malawi is a newly independent and densely populated country.
  • • The Malawi Water Crisis is a multifaceted problem linked to natural disasters and the country’s general topography.
  • • The lack of clean water contributes to a variety of health problems and causes thousands of fatalities each year.
  • • Some solutions to the Malawi water crisis involve educational outreach, digging wells and building water system expansions.

Imagine an African watering hole – the kind you see in a National Geographic special or a travelogue video. The dark water is hit by the hot African sun and reflects the light up in a million sparkling fragments. Magnificent creatures of all shapes and sizes visit it night and day to quench their thirst or cool themselves in its refreshing water. It’s a beautiful, even awe-inspiring scene, and one that tourists travel thousands of miles to see on their African safaris.

Lake Malawi, also known as Lake Nyasa, is one of these idyllic bodies of water. In fact, it’s the ninth-largest lake in the world and the third-largest lake in Africa – yet the people who live in Malawi remain in a water crisis. How is that possible?

To find that answer, you must learn more about the complexity of life in Malawi. It is a densely populated African country with over 21 million people living in just over 45 thousand square miles. Its people have their fair share of struggles, including a low life expectancy, high infant mortality and HIV/AIDS. Because of these issues, more than 50 percent of Malawi’s population is under the age of 18, and many children are orphans or otherwise vulnerable. All of this is compounded by the reality that many of them do not have access to safe water.

People in traditional African dress have a community gathering.
A community gathering in Malawi.

The Malawi Water Crisis

Throughout the world, nearly 2 billion people are without water services and of those, over 400 million people are collecting water from unprotected sources (like wells, ponds and rivers).

Like many countries in Africa, Malawi is landlocked, and its terrain is susceptible to droughts and water shortages. In 2015, floods devastated the small, densely populated country. The floods destroyed homes and crops, but they also contaminated many of the safe water resources available to the rural and urban populations. These floods left many people without safe drinking water.

The very next year the country experienced a terrible drought, leaving many families in turmoil as they struggled to find clean water to drink. Because water was prioritized for drinking over washing, diseases that stem from a lack of washing became commonplace.

Because there was not enough water to adequately water crops, food yields declined, creating yet another set of challenges. When water isn’t available, the human body depends on food as a source of hydration, but the poor crop yields made that solution impossible. Soon Malawi was in a state of emergency, lacking both sufficient water and food.

In situations like this, families living in urban environments are less likely to feel the stress of a water crisis because a city’s infrastructure can provide a buffer to the disaster. But in Malawi’s case, as many as three percent of people living in a city still reported having no access to clean water within their own homes.

Subsequent Issues

Five schoolchildren in blue shirts walk to school in Malawi.
Only 5 percent of schools have access to appropriate sanitation facilities in Malawi.

Water is an essential part of our everyday lives, and we use a substantial amount of it to meet our daily needs, especially if we have a large family. Given the scale of the need in Malawi, sending cases of water to missions in the country is no solution to their immense and urgent need. Water helps keep us hydrated and alive, but it is also needed for preparing food, washing clothing and other items, bathing, and eliminating waste. Water is also essential to institutions such as hospitals and schools.

Unfortunately, even though water, sanitation and hygiene are a critical part of our daily lives, many places do not have the necessary facilities to provide sanitation and hygiene services. In fact, in 2018, only 5 percent of schools in Malawi offered appropriate sanitation facilities.

During the pandemic, hand-washing has been emphasized by our health practitioners more than ever, making shortcomings in this area a matter of even greater concern.

Of course, the lack of handwashing facilities is only one of a poor community’s sanitation hurdles. The disposal of human waste is also a serious problem in many communities. It’s estimated, for example, that 7 percent of Malawi’s rural inhabitants, and 6 percent of their total inhabitants, practice open defecation because they do not have access to toilets. Open defecation pollutes the environment and puts the community at risk.

Many contaminants in Malawians’ drinking water – from open defecation, flooding, and natural parasites and bacteria – result in gastrointestinal problems that can quickly turn fatal. In fact, thousands of children in Malawi die each year from diarrhea due to contaminants. Without adequate sanitation to stop the infection and water to help rehydrate their small bodies, children quickly succumb to their illnesses.

Donate to Provide Clean Water

A work crew installs pipe at an outdoor well in Malawi.
Cross Catholic Outreach partners with church ministries like the Diocese of Karonga in Malawi to build and install community wells like this one.

Fixing the Problem

Solving these water and sanitation problems in Malawi is a challenge, but Church missions have been working on this issue. One of their first goals is to educate people about hygiene and sanitation practices. Teaching people basic skills to protect themselves from water contaminants would significantly help in reducing issues around hygiene and sanitation.

The construction of wells and the installation of water filters also play an important role in Church efforts to end the water crisis in Malawi. Wells can be drilled in even the remotest rural communities, making safe, abundant water much more accessible to those areas’ poorest families.

Mission teams are also working hard to provide water sources and sanitation facilities to schools and hospitals. In remote locations, these schools and clinics often work with meager budgets, so our financial support to providing these critically needed wells and facilities is essential.

Get Involved

You can play a part in these important efforts by joining other compassionate Catholics in empowering this work today. Cross Catholic Outreach has organized many of these initiatives and can use your contributions to launch effective measures to end Malawi’s water crisis. Become a part of the solution by making a generous donation to Cross Catholic Outreach today. Your support will further the ministry’s efforts to provide clean water and improved sanitation facilities where they are needed most.

Donations from this campaign will be used to cover any expenditures incurred through June 30, 2024, the close of our ministry’s fiscal year. In the event that more funds are raised than needed to fully fund the project, the excess funds, if any, will be used to meet the most urgent needs of the ministry.