People, Promise and Politics: Adding Our Voice to the Public Discourse on Water and Politics

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October 3, 2019

People, Promise and Politics: Adding Our Voice to the Public Discourse on Water and Politics

written by Muthi Nhlema, Team Leader

Of all the values that underpin our work at BASEflow, my favorite child would probably be “Boldness” which we describe as:

The recognition that the challenges we seek to address are complex, which is precisely why they have persisted for decades. BASEflow believes that courage is needed to take calculated risks and make ambitious decisions to change what many in the sector believe cannot be changed’

As development workers, we oftentimes forget that our work, besides digging that well or building that school, involves changing the accepted way of doing things. This usually means standing up for those who are voiceless, mostly because they are afraid to speak; which puts us in the firing line of people with influence, power and, ultimately, vested interest in keeping things the way they are. It’s in such moments that one knows what one is really made of; for it is in such times when boldness is needed. Nowhere is this more apparent than in that minefield which is the nexus between water and politics.

The nexus between water and politics in Malawi, like many places in the world, has always been a minefield of controversy where philosophies and ideologies battle for dominance. What may seem in the eyes of many to be an indiscriminate threshold resource that should be accessible to all, is seen, through the political lens, to be a powerful tool to gain votes and legitimacy from the masses. The recent Malawian tripartite elections in May of this year exemplified this through promises that were made that, on paper, seemed to go against principles of sustainability and the guidelines/frameworks outlined in national policies such as the National Water Policy e.g. a case in point: https://mwnation.com/ndirande-gets-boreholes/ .

It is from this clash of interests, between the developmental and the political, that controversies arise; and, resultantly and understandably, civil society organizations, particularly those working in Malawi’s water sector, chose to either tread carefully or avoid the likely fallout all together. It is a dilemma that we at BASEflow understand all too well.

So how can a civil society organization engage the political whilst navigating the minefield of controversy surrounding it? We cannot say we have all the answers, but, leading up to the May 2019 general elections, we decided to add our voice to the public discourse around Water and Politics and whether or not, the two can or should mix. Below are the ways through which BASEflow added its voice:

Newspaper clipping, Nation Newspaper 27th March 2019.
  • Newspaper Publicity: we were featured in one of the major dailies talking directly to the theme of “Politicization of Water”. Enhanced by a full-page interview, my position on the topic was that water is a threshold resource which should be managed sustainably by all, including politicians during campaign period, within stipulated government guidelines. Politics cannot be ignored as it is part of the decision-making ecosystem. However, politicians have a responsibility to understand the science, the data and technical aspects of the decisions they have to make around water resources; and NGOs, private sector and donors need to do a better job to communicate the science.
  • Contribution to the Presidential debate: BASEflow, in partnership with WESNET and Democracy Works Foundation, brought together a cross-section of civil society organizations together to develop a Position Paper outlining the key water sector questions for the Presidential Debates that were scheduled prior to the elections. In summary, the following were the questions that were developed:
    • Inadequate Funding for Water Services Sector: What are your plans and the specific actions you will take to ensure that the water, sanitation and hygiene sector is allocated at least 3% of the total national budget? How will your government ensure that we finally decentralize water sector funds to be used by government in providing these services at district level?
    • Poor Water Resources Management: Given that hydroelectric power is the primary source of energy for Malawians, aside from diversifying energy sources, what will be your plan to ensure that water resources are managed properly to allow for adequate power generation?
    • Limited Accountability of Stakeholders: What mechanisms will you put in place to ensure that members of your party and indeed any other stakeholders do not go against existing government water and sanitation policies and guidelines and when they do how will you hold them accountable?
    • Low Prioritization of the Water Services Sector: What is your opinion on having a stand-alone Ministry for Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene?
      Though the questions were not asked of the Presidential candidates, the interactive and meticulous process leading up to the Presidential Debates raised the profile, and importance, of key water sector issues which has not been the case in recent years as the last question would suggest. 
  • “Madzi Alibe Chipani (water has no color)” Radio Campaign: Using the power of radio and inspired by my friend Ned Breslin, a local production company reached out and partnered with BASEflow to develop a series of short adverts to reach rural communities and aspiring MPs with key messages that:
    • Raise awareness of the need and benefit of following government policy, procedures and processes when providing groundwater development services during and beyond campaign-period;
    • Address accepted practices, or ways of doing things, during campaign period that negatively impact on the sustainability of boreholes/handpumps
  • Building off real-life stories and voices, the radio campaign had 7 adverts in all which were broadcast 700 times from November 2018 until May 2019, reaching countless millions with key messages. The radio adverts, their key messages and abridged translations are below (click on the audio player to listen to actual advert);
Key Message: Follow the Standards
Translation: Do you know that it is your right to have access to safe clean water? As we draw closer to the tripartite elections, many aspiring MPs will come to your homes, promising to bring water to your village. Ask them if they first checked with the District Water Office to confirm that the promised water supply points are in line with district priorities and government standards? Aspiring Members of Parliament, do not use water as a political tool to gain votes, if you have not followed the stipulations outlined in the National Water Policy, Water Resources Act and the district development plans in your area. Remember, water is life! Water is at the centre of everything! Water has no color!
Key Message: Demand for Answers.
Translation: Many places in Malawi are experiencing water shortage problems, and people are struggling because of it. So those people aspiring to be Member of Parliaments during this next election cycle should not fool you with false promises. Ask them about what their plan will be for dealing with the water shortage situation in your area. If they say they will drill boreholes, remind them that there were many before them who made similar promises. What will they do differently? Demand clear answers about what their plan will be, because water shortages affect everyone from every political party and walk of life. Water has no color!
Key Message: Let Water Officers do their Job
Translation:
Water Officer: Sir, welcome to the District Water Office. How may I help you?
MP: I would like more money to drill more boreholes in my constituency.
Water Officer: But, Sir, my records show that your constituency has more than enough boreholes. The money we have has been set aside for drilling boreholes in the constituency of the other MP (from the opposition party).
MP: What! Are you crazy? Those people voted wrongly, they should suffer for it!
Water Officer: Sir, we are all Malawians. Everyone pays tax and deserves to be reached with water. Even those people from the opposition MP’s constituency paid tax and deserve water.
MP: I can’t allow that! My people should suffer because of them?
Water Officer: But how will your people suffer when you have enough boreholes? Is it because of the elections? You’ll end up drilling boreholes you don’t need just for show when other areas don’t even have a single one!
MP: Who do you think you’re talking to? Don’t you know I can make one phone call and you’ll be jobless?
Narrator: This actually happens! This happens especially with incumbent Members of Parliament who interfere in government decision-making by threatening to terminate government worker’s jobs if they don’t toe the line. Water is meant for everyone no matter their political or social affiliations because we all pay taxes for better social services. Members of Parliament, please let District Water Officers do their jobs without fear so they can serve your constituents better.
Key Message: More Money for Water Offices
Translation: (phone call)
Water Officer: “Hello?”
Malikebu: “Yes Sir, I am Mr Malikebu. We have a serious borehole problem in my village.”
Water Officer: “ Yes! I remeber you, Mr. Malikebu!”
Malikebu: “We are really desperate! When can you come?”
Water Officer: “But we trained you in how to fix your borehole when it breaks down, didnt we?”
Malikebu: “True, you did. We tried to fix it on our own and the problem seems far too technical for us, thats why we needed you urgently! Please help!”
Water Officer: “This is a common problem in many areas of the district, but the problem is I don’t have fuel to reach everyone. Our monthly operations budget hasn’t come through, and we depleted last month’s budget ages ago! We only receive 400,000 MWK (US$540) for all office expenses which is never enough? I don’t know how I can help?”
Malikebu: “Please do whatever you can to come! We’re having a cholera outbreak and our women and girls are …..”( phone cuts – ran out of airtime/phone credit)
Narrator: One of the roles of a District Water Office is to help communities when boreholes fail or breakdown. But most Water Officers fail to help because of inadequate funding from central government to cover day-to-day operational costs. It is the job of District Water Officer to fix your borehole not a Member of Parliament! Ask your Members of Parliament what they plan to do to help District Water Officers when they get to Parliament.
Key Message: Use Trained Water Mechanics
Translation: (excited murmurs from people at a community meeting)
MP: “Hello All, as you know I am your Member of parliament(MP) who loves his people, a development conscious MP. As soon as I heard the borehole broke down I came running with my mechanic to fix your borehole. Consider your problem solved!”
Mechanic: “Sir, could I see you privately for a moment? I fix bicycles, if you had told me it was a borehole I might have reconsidered.”
MP: “It’s not hard, just act like you are fixing it. I give you your money and you go! Help me out!”
Mechanic: “But it’s a hard job, Sir. I can’t…..”
MP: “It’s for my campaign, help me out man! It’s not hard… Come on, let’s go!”
(Mechanic dragged to the community meeting)
MP: “We have an understanding. Don’t worry! You’ll have water soon!
Community Speaker: “Sir, we had our own discussions too. If you want your mechanic to fix our borehole, its better you leave it. If you want to fix it for us, you better come with a Government official.
(Community agrees loudly)
MP: If that’s the case, stay with your broken down borehole! I’m off!
(Community jeers MP)
Narrator: It’s campaign time and Members of Parliament will be coming to your area with promises. Some will promise to fix your boreholes with their own mechanics, when the government already has trained and approved mechanics. If a mechanic is untrained or not approved by government, do not allow such a person to fix your borehole, even if they come with a Member of Parliament. They will only cause more problems!
Key Message: Leaders Speak Up!
Translation: (Crowd cheers for the Chief)
Chief: “Thank you! Thank you! Welcome the Councilor and the MP for this area. Please be assured that you are guaranteed a win from this area during the next elections! But our warning is this: your fellow MPs have lied to us in years past. They drilled shallow boreholes that would dry within a few days! (crowd agrees loudly). Drilling boreholes in filthy areas! If they lost the elections, they would even dismantle the boreholes out of spite. We are tired of this! So we have agreed that anyone who wants to drill a borehole in our village should follow proper channels by working with the District Water Office. Also the District Water Officer should be brought here to oversee the drilling works so we get high quality boreholes. We won’t accept anything less! Water is life! Water is the centre of everything! Water has no color!” (crowd cheers)
Key Message: Demand for Answers (Citizen Empowerment)
Translation:
Community Speaker 1: There are the Village Development Committee (VDC) and the Councilor! We should leave and go to the District Council Offices! When we get there, you should speak on our behalf.
Community Speaker 2: Friends! We want them to explain how do they allocate water supply points across the district. What methods do they use? How do they make decisions? We have a right to understand how it’s done! (crowd agrees)
Community Speaker 3: How is it possible that the neighboring village, where the winning MP comes from, has many boreholes, and yet we don’t have a single one in our village. Are these decisions based on politics? Is it because we voted for the losing MP?
Community Speaker 2: Also, the MP comes and tells us our borehole costs 23 million MWK ($31,000)! How is that possible? (crowd comments randomly)
Community Speaker 4: Friends! I am so scared. It is hard to get the attention of these government officials. (crowd disagrees)
Woman: Comrades! It is our right to know and get answers from our government! Because everyone needs water. Water is life!  Water has no color.

My Reflections…

This was how BASEflow added its voice to the public discourse around Water and Politics during the 2019 campaign period and we continue, through organizations such as WESNET and Democracy Works Foundation, to add our insights, values and ideas to this sensitive, but strategically important, area; because, as one Malawian water practitioner once said;

“The science behind understanding water resources is important, but it’s the politics of the time that determines the future!”.

As frustrating as it may be to work with politicians who often look no further than a 5-year horizon, politics is part of the decision-making ecosystem and cannot be avoided or purged. It is politics, as mentioned, that shapes the future and the only way we can change the course of the future is by being at the table and influencing those in political power. Sometimes it is slow, agonizing and maddening, but indifference, apathy or fear, the default of many when it comes to politics, is just as destructive if not worse than inertia. Though it might not seem that way at times, ‘governance’ is actually a doing-word – a dance between the elected and the electors – and like a dance, it’s about finding the right balance between delivering a finite set of promises, from an ocean of competing priorities, and achieving one’s personal political ambitions; a task that is now far more complicated to accomplish given the reality of climate change. Both sides have, and should, have a stake in a functional governance system; and, as is often forgotten, it is within the power, and responsibility of, the citizenry to demand for a governance system, and leaders therein, that serve their interests. Our role as civil society, in this complicated love affair between the people and politics, is to remind both of their responsibilities and, hopefully, help society find that balance between promise and politics.

I won’t be the first person to say it is easier said than done and I surely won’t be the last, but as long as the dialogue is open, though at times heated, we are moving closer to finding that balance.

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