When Jim McGillsees a Malawi community celebrate the first gush of clean water from a newly dug shallow well, he knows their joy is about more than cool refreshment from the scorching sun.

“They know it improves their health and safety, and that means a lot to people,” says McGill, a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) mission worker since 1990. “When an area doesn’t have a protected source of water, their priority is to have a protected source, because they don’t want to be drinking water from places where cattle or goats drink or where frogs are swimming around in the water.” 

McGill is coordinator of the protected water program of the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian’s Synod of Livingstonia, which serves northern Malawi. The synod’s hand-dug or shallow well program is its main way of providing Malawians clean water.

Like most developing countries, Malawi struggles with access to potable water. An estimated 1 billion people worldwide lack access to clean water and another 2.6 billion do not have access to adequate sanitation.

Water-related diseases claim the lives of 2 million to 5 million people each year. Some analysts say that collectively these diseases, which include typhoid, cholera and hepatitis A, kill more people than HIV/AIDS.   

While shallow wells are not a universal solution to the crisis, McGill says they are effective in Malawi.  “In Malawi, it’s a matter of protecting the water that exists,” he says. “In the majority of areas in Malawi, shallow wells work.”

Shallow wells are located near an existing water source. They are usually no more than 20 feet deep and are developed with simple materials — bricks, stones, sand, cement, a hand pump, and pipe. African beneficiaries provide the local materials and unskilled labor for the hand-dug wells installed in Livingstonia. The pumps are fabricated and assembled at a project maintenance shop. The price tag for a single well has been about $350 ― an average cost of under $2 per user.

About 60 percent of the northern Malawi region served by Livingstonia has access to clean water. According to government statistics, the region is home to 1.7 million of Malawi’s population of 13 million.

“For the Synod of Livingstonia, our goal is to reach 100 percent with access [to clean water] as quickly as we can,” McGill says. “Our long-term goal is to get it into the houses or as close to inside the houses as we can. That might sound like pie in the sky, but I think it’s a goal we should have.”

The Malawian government says a household has access to clean water if the source is located closer than 500 meters from the home and if fewer than 250 people use it.

McGill, who holds a master’s degree in geological engineering, brings technological skill and deep experience to the tasks. Yet he is quick to note that Malawians — both field officers who work for the synod and community-based management teams — are key to the program’s success.

“Every year when we’re doing installations we are training people from the communities, so we are transferring skills,” he says. “Most of our field officers have some kind of tertiary training, either a bachelor’s degree or a diploma in environmental science or social science, so they are able to deal with training communities and management issues.”

From the beginning, the major U.S. based–supporter of the shallow wells in Malawi has been Marion Medical Mission (MMM), an ecumenical group based in Marion, IL, that was founded by Tom Logan, a Presbyterian. 

U.S. Rotary clubs have also contributed to Livingstonia’s other water projects, leveraging matching grants from Rotary district organizations and Rotary International.

Each fall MMM sends teams to Malawi to assist with the installation of wells. They haul supplies in four-wheel-drive pickup trucks and work with local installers. In some cases the terrain is too difficult for the pickup, so the pump and pipes have to be hand-carried to the site or rolled in on a bicycle or oxcart.

Marion Medical Mission has been involved in the installation of  8,500 wells since 1990, the vast majority in Malawi, but it has also assisted with wells in Zambia and Tanzania.

“There’s a dedication ceremony for each well and the volunteers say, 'Your well is special and your well represents the love of Jesus Christ,' ” Logan says.

McGill says communities appreciate the church for providing water, but the synod is adamant that water not be used to exercise power in the communities. “The wells are not for the church but for the community,” he explains. “It’s part of the synod’s holistic ministry.”

That ministry does not end when the first stream of water is pumped from the well. Field officers operate a spare parts network and area mechanics contract with communities to do maintenance and repairs.

In community water decisions, McGill says listening to women is important because women bear the burden of carrying water to their homes.

“You see a house way on top of a hill because the man wants his house up there, but it’s the woman who has to go down into the valley, get the water, and bring it up every day,” he says. “The collection of water is a tremendous burden on women. When men are making decisions, they often aren’t making the kind of decisions that women would make. That’s why it’s important to include women in any of the discussions about water related to the household.”

Of course easy access to clean water is more than a matter of convenience. It can be the difference between life and death. “When more water is used, there is better hygiene and sanitation, which affects the whole health cycle,” McGill says.

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