Unsafe water raises COVID-19 risks in Mbeya, Tanzania

Unsafe water raises COVID-19 risks in Mbeya, Tanzania

By Heneliko Malo and Grace Mwakalinga

Residents of Madundasi and Lyala villages in Luhanga Ward in Mbarali district – in Tanzania’s Mbeya Region are at risk of contracting waterborne diseases due to the use of unsafe water. The residents in the area trek long distances of over 20 kilometers to access water from a seasonal river, which they share with animals. 

This does not only mean spending much time fetching water but also being at risk of acquiring dirty hands related diseases including COVID-19, Typhoid and Cholera which left 14 people dead and 712 others hospitalized in 2017/2018 in the districts of Mbeya, Mbarali, Chunya and Kyela, all found in this particular region.

“We are finding it hard to follow health guidelines on regular handwashing to prevent COVID-19 because of water shortage,” notes Tatu Shinamwalenga, a resident of Madundasi Village.

Tatu and several of his villagemates note that even the unsafe water source they use usually dries around July to October – during the dry season, making lives harder. 

Madundasi Village Executive Officer, Ismail Chungu says that area residents, “share water source with livestock,” – increasing the possibility of using contaminated water. 

With the current COVID-19 pandemic- that calls for regular handwashing with soap and clean water as a prevention measure, the water shortage in Mudundasa and Lyala is not only a public health threat but a crisis as well. 

By the end of June 2020, there were four cases of the novel Coronavirus in the Mbeya region, according to Albert Chalamila, Mbeya region Commissioner.

Mainland Tanzania has not released official Coronavirus figures since April 29th this year when it had 480 cases and 21 deaths. At the beginning of this month, Tanzania’s President Dr. John Magufuli told worshippers in Dodoma that corona disease has been eliminated by God.

While dissolving parliament on June 16, 2020, Tanzania President Dr. John Magufuli said Coronavirus infections in the country had decreased significantly. He allowed the opening of primary and secondary schools and other activities but cautioned Tanzanians to continue to take precautions against Coronavirus, which include hand washing.

In Mbeya region, just 54 percent of households were using an improved source of water in 2017, lower than the national average of about 66 percent, according to the most recent Malaria Indicator Survey. About 27 percent of households got their water from unsafe surface water sources, higher than all of the other 39 regions in the country except for Songwe. The percentage of households depending on surface water in Mbeya also doubled from 2015, when just 13 percent relied on surface water sources such as rivers and ponds.

As a solution to the rural water shortage, Mbeya residents have now resorted to buying expensive water from people who fetch and distribute it using motorcycles. 

Area leaders and government acknowledge this challenge and efforts are in place to ease the burden and improve people’s standards of living through the Rural Water Supply and Sanitation Agency (RUWASA). The agency is responsible for designing and overseeing the construction of rural water projects, and conducting research on groundwater as well as drilling. 

Engineer Job Mwakasala, a water supply and sanitation manager in Mbarali District, says there are efforts to solve rural water shortage. 

According to Mwakasala, the first step was to develop the Luhanga – Mpolo water project in 2010 adding that, “the next project will focus on extending water to Madundasi and Lyala villages.” 

Almost half of the 56.3 million population of Tanzania does not have access to an improved source of safe water according to data from UNICEF  and Water.org, a global nonprofit organization working to bring water and sanitation to the world.

Tanzania is currently implementing the National Development Vision which aims to improve access to water services in rural areas by 95 percent by 2025. 

Despite the water access challenge, health experts like Dr. Godfrey Mwakalila from the Mbarali district Health department want people to use the little water available to wash hands regularly to lessen the spread of sanitation related diseases. 

This story was produced in partnership with InfoNile with support from Code for Africa and funding from the Pulitzer Center and National Geographic Society. Additional reporting and editing by Fredrick Mugira and Annika McGinnis.

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