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Blantyre Water Supply System: A Punctuated Equilibrium Reform


Blantyre, located at the southern part of Malawi, is the commercial hub of the country. Due to its closeness to the Shire River of Zambezi Basin, the city has vast water resources. Despite of its strategic geographical location, the city suffers from proper water service provisioning in urban and peri-urban areas (Adams & Zulu, 2015). With almost one million residents, half of the population of Blantyre has access to piped water of which 3% of the piped water users have private water connection while the rest (97%) has access to the communal water kiosk. The remaining 50% of the city’s population who does not have access to piped water relies upon alternative water resources such as water pumps and unsafe water resources (Tchuwa, 2018). According to Tchuwa (2018), the city’s water supply system faces quite a large number of problems. Poor water infrastructures, disparity in water access, high tariff and the rise of water borne diseases are the major challenges of Blantyre water provisioning system. The problems of Blantyre water supply is not due to its geographical location. It rather ties to the political economic interest of a specific group of people.

Communal water kiosk scheme was the main source of water provisioning in peri-urban and urban areas of Blantyre which was managed by Blantyre Water Board (BWD). Lack of management, poor functionality of the water infrastructure, lack of community participation, lack of transparency in bill collection, extreme water-bill debts of BWB ($ 362,713), lack of staff accountability, and financial sustainability of the system as well as political meddling led to the creation of community-based natural resources management (CBNRM) approach where all stakeholders such as private, public, non-governmental organization (NGO) and the community water users can play an effective role in managing CBNRM. Decentralization, neo-liberalization and good governance were the main goals of CBNRM (Adams & Zulu, 2015). CBNRM was primarily applied in rural areas where private and public water service provisioning for the domestic and irrigation purposes were not financially sustainable (Ghosh, 2007; Adams & Zulu, 2015). Therefore, applying this approach in urban and peri-urban areas (the low-income residents live in peri-urban areas) was quite new. The 1971 water act provides the community based water provision through water user association (WUA) in Blantyre. This community based water supplying scheme is regulated by BWB. The community based water provisioning system through WUA has to pay back the water bill debts to BWB and has to recover its costs (e.g., maintenance, operational, recurrent, and capital costs) while ensuring equal, sustainable and affordable access to all water users (Adams & Zulu, 2015).

Despite the fact that WUAs community-based water supplying was established to enhance was supplying in peri-urban and urban areas of Blantyre, it is heavily top-down and commercially-oriented. It is because WUA approach is chosen by the communities, but the community does not participate in the structure and formation of WUA. At its early stage of creation, WUA had gained a myriad number of achievements. The WUA enhanced its serviceability by increasing the number of water kiosks, decreasing the kiosk disconnection and breakdown, and reducing the leakage due to water losses. According to Adams and Zulu (2015), the kiosk water provisioning under WUA was well-structured and well-managed. In addition, WUA was not only successful in operational and supply side, but it also became a profitable water supply system; being able to pay the water-bill debts of BWB while maintaining its operating costs.

Despite the autonomy of WUA in provisioning water for the urban and peri-urban area of Blantyre, it was fully controlled and steered by the BWB. BWB as the sole regulating authority and the main owner of water kiosk, was controlling and influencing he WUA’s decision making processes such as water pricing, workers’ wages, and constitutional reform. Using its power, Water Board (WB) defines the water supply zone, train the staff of WUA, and supervise the billing. In fact, WB has the ultimate power to steer the WUAs, disintegrate and re-structure WUAs. WB also co-sign all the contracts, documents and transactions and bank account. It also monitors and audits WUA account every four months. Further, WB influences WUA election by appointing nominees for the WUA board. Hence, the elected board under the leverage of BWB does play significant role in decision making.

The author contends that in order to depoliticize the WUAs in delivering equitable and affordable water to the urban and peri-urban areas of the city through communal water kiosk, the ‘Punctuated Equilibrium’ Reform should be applied. According to Schwartz (2009), the theory of institutional reform as Punctuated Equilibria states that at the stage of the establishment of an institution, the institution tries to maintain its performance and fluidity. However, in order to shift from one equilibrium (the current state) to another equilibrium at different level, there should be external triggers. Schwartz (2009), for instance, argues that the continued poor performance of a water utility could be affected by external triggers such as changes within the government (e.g., new election, or decentralization of the institution), riots by the communities (in Blantyre city, demonstration of the low-income areas) or external funding bodies’ pressures.

Considering the fact that more than 70% of the total population live in low-income areas of the city, 60% of the Blantyre total population live below the poverty line, and 70% of the Blantyre total population depends on Blantyre Water Board (BWB) (see, Kalulu & Hoko, 2010; Mughogho & Kosamu, 2012; Adams & Zulu, 2015), who are marginalized and underserved by the water board and WUAs, I contend that any riot or demonstration by the low-income areas will force the government to prioritize the water service provisioning in their national agenda. This is because the low-income residents who accounts for almost 70% of the city’s total population pay more money through water kiosk compared to in-house connection users.

High electricity debt, low coverage area (70%), high non-revenue water (40%-49%) low tariff for the in-house connection, along with the poor water utility management and rapid urbanization have deteriorated the performance of the BWB (Magombo & Kosamu, 2016). I believe that the poor performance of the WUAs in low-income areas and the political meddling of WB in WUAs’ decision making could be resolved through empowering the communities and the direct support of the government under the concept of Punctuated Equilibrium Reform. Schwartz (2009) argues that successful reforms include a mix of different factor such as raising the capacity of the employees (in our case, the capacity building of the community water users), altering the organization environment, attraction of external financial and political patronages and change in the leadership of the organization. In the case low-income areas who depends on WUA through water kiosk, engaging these marginalized communities in decision making processes of WUAs will discourage WB from interfering. According to Adams and Zulu (2015), WUAs were not successful in inviting the community in decision making. That is why communities do not play role in decision making regarding water service provisioning. In addition, fix salary should be allocated to the executive committee members of the WUAs; they are elected by water user communities; so that they put more efforts in pushing the WUAs towards success. On the other side, the water utility can pay the electricity bill debts by minimizing their organizational expenses such as reducing the staff (see, Schwartz, 2009) and restructuring their policy toward efficient bill collection.

In closing, for sustainable, equitable and affordable water service provisioning in urban and peri-urban areas of the Blantyre city, the paper argues that marginalized and disprivileged communities specifically the low-income areas have to be the main dynamic triggers for bringing fundamental ‘Punctuated Equilibrium’ reforms within the water utility. The ‘Punctuated Equilibrium’ reform will benefit the most marginalized and underserved communities, low-income areas, who pay more tariff compared to the in-house connections water users.


Adams, Ellis Adjei, and Leo Charles Zulu. “Participants or Customers in Water Governance? Community-Public Partnerships for Peri-Urban Water Supply.” Geoforum, vol. 65, 2015, pp. 112–124., doi:10.1016/j.geoforum.2015.07.017.

Ghosh, Nandita. “Women and the Politics of Water: An Introduction.” International Feminist Journal of Politics, vol. 9, no. 4, 2007, pp. 443–454., doi:10.1080/14616740701607929.

Kalulu, Khumbo, and Zvikomborero Hoko. “Assessment of the Performance of a Public Water Utility: A Case Study of Blantyre Water Board in Malawi.” Physics and Chemistry of the Earth, Parts A/B/C, vol. 35, no. 13-14, 2010, pp. 806–810., doi:10.1016/j.pce.2010.07.017.

Magombo, Peter Unique, and Ishmael Bobby Mphangwe Kosamu. ”Challenges of water accessibility in the urban centres of Malawi: A case study of Blantyre City.” African Journal of Environmental Science and Technology, vol. 10 (10), pp. 380-385, October 2016., doi: 10.5897/AJEST2015.2126.

Mughogho, B. U. G., and I.B.M. Kosamu. “Water Supply Arrangements in Developing Countries: A Case Study of Blantyre City, Malawi.” African Journal of Environmental Science and Technology, vol. 6, no. 2, 2012, doi:10.5897/ajest11.389.

Schwartz, Klaas. “The Reform of Public Water Utilities: Successful Utility Reform Efforts as Punctuated Equilibria.” Water Policy, vol. 11, no. 4, 2009, pp. 401–412., doi:10.2166/wp.2009.062.

Tchuwa, Isaac. “The ‘Poisoned Chalice’ of State Ownership of Water Infrastructure in Contemporary Blantyre, Malawi.” Journal of Contemporary African Studies, vol. 36, no. 1, 2018, pp. 1–22., doi:10.1080/02589001.2017.1414167.

The writer has M.Sc. in Water Resources Policy and Management at UNESCO-IHE (Institute for Water Education), Oregon State University, USA

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