Greetings, it is the pleasure of this Court to welcome you all back after a period of strike. As you may be aware, our support staff were on industrial action demanding an improvement in their conditions of service. Our judicial premises were blocked from our access. Now that they have found their cool, they have allowed us to be back to our benches.
You see, when strikes like these happen, dispensation of justice is inconvenienced. It was in the mind of this Court to adjudicate on the prevailing matter relating to the Area 18 drinking water contamination and its attendant circumstances. It is our hope that you will understand this honourable Court to, howbeit in a delayed manner, deliver its justice on the matter. This crisis cannot go unattended to by this Court.
Facts of the matter:
In a sudden flip, the taps were delivering water with a muddy colour and a terrible stench in Area 18 homesteads in our capital city – Lilongwe. It was eventually established that the water was hosting sewerage poop. The Lilongwe Water Board (LWB) then explained that the scenario happened because one of the water supply pipes burst underground and that at the vicinity a broken sewer system was emitting effluent into the water supply pipe.
It is also a matter of (related) fact(s) that the piping infrastructure that make up the distribution network for Lilongwe has outlived its optimum period. This is why a lot of leakages in the mains are reported occasionally. Do we need large-scale serious tragedies to consider renewing the infrastructure?
The Constitution of the Republic of Malawi (1995) provides a foundation for many of the freedoms and rights its citizens are supposed to enjoy. Section 16 protects the right to life. What is not specifically mentioned is the right to water and yet without water there can be no life. But there is a remedy in place. The state is obligated to actively promote the welfare of the people of Malawi by progressively adopting and implementing polices and legislation aimed at achieving, among others, health safety measures of international standards (see Section 13(d)).
To address safety in the domestic water supply, there is a National Water Policy (NWP) in place which articulates the government’s position on water resource management, infrastructure development and water and sanitation service delivery. Water quality features prominently as a major policy goal and priority throughout the document and the water utilities (in this case LWB) are responsible for ensuring water quality within the water supply systems. They are required to do so by, among other standards, ensuring that its distribution infrastructure complies to safety standards.
This matter carries, with it, some confusion: How both the sewer pipe and the water supply pipes decided to burst at the same point has gone unexplained. The authorities at LWB have not bothered to explain the actual cause of the bursting of the pipe neither has the Lilongwe City Counsel accounted for the bursting of its sewer system pipe. “Accountability? Tell it to marines!” They both appear to suggest.
Here is the LWB management, which, according to the NWP, bears 100% of the responsibility regarding safety of the water supply to these affected clients, continuing drawing their pay checks without even tripping with guilt. No proper explanation whatsoever? Something is fundamentally wrong here. This is not on.
Here are some profound questions that, perhaps, should appear at the fore of further discussions:
Has the LWB taken any responsibility for the damage and suffering arising from this lapse? Has it undertaken, or at least tabled, any plans to assess its distribution infrastructure network to see if there are any pipes that need immediate replacement?
Drawing from the highlighted fact that the LWB distribution infrastructure network was installed decades ago and that no major replacements have been done to update the same, it would not be unfair conclusion to say that there is managerial incompetence at LWB.
With this senile distribution infrastructure, there is potential risk that the tragedy will befall another neighbourhood sooner or later. That time, it may not be pool contamination but something highly toxic and lethal. Corrosion is pausing itself as a potential disaster to such aged pipes. Lives will be lost and the lucky surviving ones will live on with serious complications that will badly impact on their lives.
Thus in the absence of any action, or at least commitment to act, this fear is real and well-founded. Yes, the contour circumstances of the Area 18 incident may be unique, but they should warn us of the potential risks that these superannuated (age-old) pipes carrying our drinking water pose to our lives. This Court should emphasize that what happened in Area 18 should never have happened AND should never be allowed to happen again.
Well, there is a saying that “what is done cannot be undone”. This, of cause, is a statement reflecting some aggressive reality. But does it burry everything? Surely not. Responsibility and accountability demands that we must compensate for the damage caused. I will pronounce the required compensation in closing this ruling. But further to that, such occurrences invite mitigation measures to be put in place.
At this point, it is the pleasure of this Court to recognize and applaud the step so far undertaken by the Office of President and Cabinet (OPC) in showing up to action. The State President, His Excellency Professor Arthur Peter Mutharika, has risen to action by commissioning an enquiry to establish circumstances lying at the bottom of this tragedy. Thank you Mr. President for taking this tragedy seriously. But this Court will ask for more.
The President’s action should never be a mere road side show nor should it be a hiding bush for the LWB CEO and his management team to evade accountability. This is why this Court is here asking the President to fire the CEO and some of his management team for their demonstrated failure in handling this crisis convincingly.
This Court is made to believe that, as per international standards on domestic water supply quality, the LWB has a staff-furnished department responsible for environmental quality. I am wondering whether this department (if available) knows that the water distribution main pipe was, at the incidental location, running in close contact with the sewer system pipe. If this was known, was it in perfect order with its applicable standards? If yes, it is my ruling that such standards are foolish. So called foolish because in the mind of this Court, such standards will answer negatively to safety compliance. Vindication and justification to this is handy – this tragedy!
Here is the issue; people who take no responsibility after endangering lives of other people through their negligence do not belong to the government. This Court is further informed that when the technical team went to the site and fixed the broken pipe, they soon thereafter told the people that the problem is fixed and the water was safe. When these technicians were told to test the water to demonstrate it was indeed safe, they dodged by saying they already tested it.
What was in their mind? What was their motive? To cover the failure? To endanger the people? The Lilongwe Water Board CEO and his immediate officers must either resign or be fired. The victims of this tragic incident must be compensated. They were forced to source domestic water from shops and far distances. They incurred unnecessary burden. They were greatly inconvenienced and exposed to hazard. They have legal right to seek compensation for this and LWB should pay them accordingly upon determination by other Courts to which their complaints will be litigated.
This Court may rise!
Pronounced this Day In this Court of Public Opinion,
The Kangaroo Court
By Lord Denning,
The presiding Judge