Are we paying enough attention to water quality?

This blog is based on the publication by Maria Rusca, Akosua Sarpong Boakye-Ansah, Alex Loftus, Giuliana Ferrero, Pieter van der Zaag, “An interdisciplinary political ecology of drinking water quality. Exploring socio-ecological inequalities in Lilongwe’s water supply network”, in Geofroum, Volume 84, August 2017, Pages 138-146



Same water, same treatment, same provider: does this mean same water quality for all?

We have tried to answer this question by looking at the quality of water supplied by the formal water utility in Lilongwe, the Capital of Malawi. The Lilongwe Water Board provides water through a centralized water supply network which serves approximately 78 percent of the city population. Yet, while part of their customers receives water through in-house connections, others are served through water kiosks, small shops where residents can buy 20-litre buckets of water. First, we have tested water quality in different parts of the network. We tested water from both higher income areas where people are served through in-house connections and lower-income areas, where people mostly buy water from the kiosks.

Akosua Sarpong, one of the researchers of the project, carries out water quality analysis on water samples in a residential high income neighborhood (left) and low-income areas of Lilongwe (right).


Both residents and staff of the water utility seem to believe that water provided through the network is of good and same quality. A manager of the Lilongwe Water Board explains that as far as he is aware “water from kiosks is of the same quality as what I collect from the taps in my house”. Similarly, many residents indicate that their main challenge and concern is water availability rather than quality. This is not hard to imagine, considering that residents of Area 56, one of the low-income unplanned areas in Lilongwe, often face water shortages that last up to 4-5 days.

Yet, our laboratory analysis shows that water at the kiosk is of lower quality than the one provided at the in-house connections in higher income areas. These inequalities according to our laboratory analysis does not start from the treatment. How is it possible? To understand this, we interviewed management and operational staff of the Lilongwe water board, staff of ministries and departments who deal with drinking water as well as its quality, kiosk attendants and customers. We found that the differences in water quality can are co-determined by decisions on management, operation and maintenance of the network. First, better quality materials (e.g. pipes) are used for the network in high-income areas, while low income areas are served through pipes of lower quality, which often are not lowered at the required depth. As a consequence, pipes in low-income areas are more vulnerable to breakage and, in turn, risks of water contamination are higher. Second, more maintenance and monitoring is done in high income areas. This means that the water utility might take longer to deal with pipe bursts in low-income areas, thus extending the time and exposure to risk of water contamination. Water Board staff by explains that “water supply to kiosks is usually cut-off and kiosks closed during the times of monitoring leading to the collection of fewer samples from the kiosks” (Staff Water Quality department). Paradoxically, discontinuity of supply in low-income areas water becomes a justification for the in- equalities in monitoring and in water quality protection. Third, water distribution very often priorities higher income areas. Very often this happens because of political pressure: “none wants an ambassador calling you to tell that there is no water, while in the Southern Zone people have many other problems besides water”, or because of the idea that resident in low-income areas are more resilient and better able to cope with scarcity: “residents in the planned [higher-income] areas who use several devices which require the constant flow of water”. In practice, however, one of the consequences – together with high rates of discontinuity faced by residents in low-income areas – are the increased risks of pipe bursts and exposure to contamination. When water flowing through pipes is subjected to sudden start and stop, alternation in the exposure of the network between water and air leads to the build-up of pressure in them; in the absence of air valves, the risk of bursts on such networks is increased.

Coping with water shortages and distance: “the bucket is not something cultural”

One of the residents of Area 56 makes it a point: “the bucket is not something cultural, it is everyday life […] if we would have water the whole day we would not need to have buckets, then we could go straight to the source”. The reason for using buckets is that the water source is distant, and that water shortages are frequent. The bucket becomes part of everyday life. While on the one hand it serves the very important purpose to store water it also exposed water to further contamination. Cleaning the buckets is expensive and the cost are passed on to consumers: as a kiosk attendant explains, “you have to pay for whatever the meter reads and so if they cannot be pay for washing buckets, they should wash from their homes before coming”. Yet, at home there is no water and for some buying lids to protect water from contamination is expensive and residents might be forced to trade-off.  Our water analysis of water stored at home showed lower levels of residual disinfectant (which protects water in storage from microbial contamination) and subsequently higher levels of contamination. As a result, water that the urban poor drink to be of a significantly worse quality than the water that the rest of the population accesses.

Water (pails) handling and storage practices in low-income areas of Lilongwe


What does it mean for research? Developing meaningful interdisciplinary research project to understand multiple dimensions of inequality. 

We believe that fully capturing inequalities in access to drinking water requires developing collaborations between natural and social science. Methodologically this involves combining qualitative approaches with methods that map and quantify material water flows and assess microbiological contamination.





This research has been undertaken in the framework of the collaboration between INHAbIT Cities (Investigating Natural, Historical and Institutional Transformations in Cities) and UNHIDE (Uncovering Hidden Dynamics in Slum Environments). INHAbIT Cities is sponsored by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 656738 and is implemented by King’s College London. UNHIDE is sponsored by the Dutch Ministry of Development Cooperation (DGIS) and is implemented under the memorandum of understanding between the University of Amsterdam and IHE Delft Institute for Water Education.

Cite this blog post
Akosua Sarpong Boakye-Ansah (2017, August 8). Are we paying enough attention to water quality? FLOWs. Retrieved June 23, 2024, from

Akosua Sarpong Boakye-Ansah

I am PhD fellow at the Integrated Water Systems and Governance department of IHE Delft Institute for Water Education and the University of Amsterdam. Using an interdisciplinary approach, my research aims at understanding pro-poor water strategies used in urban water provisioning - using selected water utilities in Kenya as case study.

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1 Response

  1. Liesbeth Wilschut says:

    Interesting post. Very useful that you have showed water quality varies substantially within different parts of Lilongwe; this way hopefully action will be undertaken to improve the water quality, especially in the areas where it is most needed.

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