Human rights
How Zimbabwe Normalised the "bucket-a-day” Life

A Decade’s Long Water Crisis
Zim water crisis

Water in its basic form is a human right and a means to all forms of life. Its uses have enabled inventions, and sustained life on earth. When its supply is abundant, mankind will tend to waste it away. But what if there wasn’t enough for household or commercial use, how would a country develop? In July of 2010 the United Nations recognised the right to water for every human being, citing in part “The Assembly recognised the right of every human being to have access to enough water. The water costs should not exceed 3 per cent of household income. Moreover, the water source has to be within 1,000 metres of the home and collection time should not exceed 30 minutes.” 

In Zimbabwe the water crisis has been swept under the rug for far too long. They say Zimbabweans are resilient and by any measure that much is true. So, how is it that for over 15 years, decent service delivery and the provision of water for urban and rural settings has been neglected to the point of normalisation? “Water is at the core of sustainable development and is critical for socio-economic development, energy and food production, healthy ecosystems and for human survival itself. Water is also a rights issue. As the global population grows, there is an increasing need to balance all of the competing commercial demands on water resources so that communities have enough for their needs.” Further cites the recognition by the United Nations. 

Buying water for household or commercial purposes is a common feature of Zimbabwean life “an abnormal norm” of sorts. In urban and rural settings women (as the home makers) are expected to walk short, sometimes long distances with heavy containers carefully placed on their heads or in a wheelbarrow as they take water home from wells and boreholes. When safe water cannot be supplied by responsible authorities, people resort to unsafe water sources often contaminated and its consumption resulting in water-borne diseases, often sending the already strained health sector into panic mode. 

Buying 5000 litres of water costs an average $USD 40 in Zimbabwe. The amount considers the cost of water and that of delivering it. The water business is quite lucrative because water supply is a scarcity in almost every part of the country. The average Zimbabwean cannot afford $USD 40 to access portable water. Under Statutory Instrument 81 of 2020 the national minimum wage is $2549,74 ZWL (roughly $32 USD against the official auction exchange rate) although the Zimbabwean dollar is the official legal tender, the United States dollar is widely used and preferred for its value and stability. Inevitably, many urban and rural households alike store water in bathtubs, buckets, dishes, bins, jars and any other container found in the home. 

When local councils fail to deliver the commodity, long queues can be found at public boreholes (many of them courtesy of donors) or water bowser collection points. The young and old take turns to collect and store as much as possible. In a United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) report on Water Sanitation and Hygiene Financing in Eastern and Southern Africa: Zimbabwe Country Level Assessment, research showed that “Despite the positive trend, WASH sector allocations fall far below government commitments to the WASH sector and 2018’s budget allocation was only about 0.43 per cent of the total national budget and 0.13 per cent of GDP.” 

In high density suburbs of the capital city Harare, those fortunate enough to have wells or boreholes in their backyards don’t just donate water to neighbours and the community it’s a means to income, they make a profit from it. The trend was confirmed by the Director of the Harare Residents Trust (HRT), Precious Shumba, “We have been told by residents that a 20 litre bucket of water is selling at $20 ZWL (roughly 25cents USD against the official auction exchange rate). Some people have found a way to get excess water from community boreholes. They collect water for personal use and the rest they sell later to desperate people when the borehole is closed for the day. The situation is prevalent in densely populated areas of Glen View, Budiriro and Kuwadzana.” 

One resident of Hatcliffe- a high density suburb of Harare, Samson Kosam lamented his ordeal “In our home, my wife and I use 40 lites of water a day. My wife and I bath together to save water, we use 10 litres. The rest of the water we use to cook, do dishes, drink and flush the toilet. When it’s laundry day we take the wheelbarrow to get an additional 20 litres. It’s difficult because we have not had running water in Hatcliffe for sometime. No one knows why. So, we collect water from the community borehole at 4am every day before there’s a long queue, it’s a 15-minute walk from where we live and we get ready for work after.” 

In Zimbabwe, water is literally recycled many times over. In most homes the same water used to wash dishes can be used for laundry before it is eventually flushed down the toilet. This is done because council water flows at most twice a week for not more than 6 hours but then again there are times when residents go for weeks on end with no water supply. In some areas residents detailed having gone for years without water supply as a result of broken pipes that were never eventually repaired. This has led to increasingly worrisome poor hygiene levels. “The 2008–2009 Zimbabwe cholera epidemic resulted in 98,585 reported cases and caused more than 4,000 deaths.” reports the Health and Human Rights Journal. 

In September 2018, a decade after the devastating impact of the cholera epidemic, it was reported once again in the high-density areas of Budiriro and Glen View, where residents had long grown tired of reporting sewer waste flowing through their streets. Desperate times call for desperate measures and boreholes and wells are a means to a desperate end. “As Harare Residents Trust we are concerned. This is a real crisis. Drilling more boreholes across suburbs is not the solution, it will result in the water table being compromised and boreholes running dry. The city council needs to increase pumping capacity to reach every community and every household.” Precious Shumba of HRT further added. 

The bucket-life has become a way of life. Harare, the sunshine city as it is affectionately known- supplies water less than 3 times a week to almost every part of the city, in some areas the plight can be felt for weeks sometimes months when faults are not attended to. When the precious liquid flows through taps every conceivable container is filled with just about enough supply until the next scheduled supply. 

“We don’t have enough water bodies to give water to all the residents. We need to build dams and reservoirs. The combined cost would be not more than $USD 250 million. The next step would be building water treatment plants. In addition, we need to refurbish and extend distribution pipes. The cost of chemicals is high and without tariffs it becomes difficult. Currently we spend $3 million ZWL on water chemicals to treat and purify the water” said Harare Mayor Jacob Mafume. 

It’s no secret that Morton Jeffrey Water Treatment Plant- the capital’s main treatment site has been operating in its current form with no major infrastructural refurbishment since before independence in 1980. The plant was built over 60 years ago. It is nothing short of a miracle that the plant still pumps the little water it does. That is but one of the antiquated treatment plants in Zimbabwe and as such, water rationing is exercised by every local authority in the country. 

Mayor Mafume went on to add "When Morton Jeffrey was built by an English engineer it was intended to service a population of over 400 000. Now it is serving a combined population of 3 million people in Harare. The Chinese did some refurbishing of the plant and that has increased capacity to around 640 mega litres per day but the city requires over 1200 mega litres to provide water everywhere everyday” 

It is no wonder that infectious diseases such as typhoid and cholera break out in some high-density suburbs of the country, and during a pandemic the scale of Covid-19 availability of water is a matter of life and death. According to a Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency and World Bank ongoing report on the Poverty and Social Impacts of Covid-19 “water shortage remains a challenge during the pandemic with 21% of urban households reporting a shortage of drinking water compared to 9% in rural areas.” 

The framework for the development of infrastructure is very much there, but it is evident that lack of funding, the absence of public-private partnerships and a reactive approach have rendered interim measures to solving the country’s water crisis useless. In 1998, the Zimbabwe National Water Authority Act led to the creation of ZINWA, a parastatal agency responsible for water planning and bulk supply, operating and maintaining infrastructure as well as executing development projects. 

“We can’t really say we are giving 100% supply to the 500 small towns and growth points across the country we are responsible for because of many challenges. Our infrastructure is obsolete and old and can no longer satisfy demand. We also have electricity challenges, load shedding and electrical faults. Some of our clients take so long to pay rates. We are currently owed in excess of $USD 1,2 billion,” said Zimbabwe National Water Authority Corporate Communications Officer Marjorie Munyonga. 

According to the African Development Bank report on Water Resource Management Supply and Sanitation “There has also been a significant decline in the quality of urban and rural services (poorer water quality, intermittent supplies, and longer walking distances).” 

In the face of a global pandemic such as the Covid 19, questions will be raised over how resilience building mechanisms need to include provision of water as a source of life and basic human need and right. While it may not be known how and when Zimbabwe’s water crisis will be resolved, it remains of paramount importance for a multi-stakeholder approach to find lasting solutions to avert any health hazard that can arise from lack of consistent water supply. Politics and divisions aside, it is long overdue for Zimbabwe to be afforded the right to consistent tap water supply. Something has got to give.