TWENTY-FIVE-year old Decision Dzapasi descends the stairs of her council flat in Glen Norah and makes a bee-line for the communal borehole, already teeming with other women and young children queuing to fetch water for drinking and other domestic uses.
For a long time Glen Norah, Mabvuku-Tafara, Glen View and Chitungwiza have all been experiencing water shortages with taps running dry for days and in some cases for weeks and even months but this time around people are queuing not due to lack of running water but because the available supplies are dirty, contaminated with urine and smelling of human waste.
“The problem for us is no longer that there is no water in the homes,” Decision explains, “or the taps are running dry but it is just that the water has the pungent smell of human waste. Our children are suffering from diarrhoea, in some cases they are dying, so there is no way we will continue drinking this smelly, green-coloured water!”
Phinogen Dzapasi, Decision’s brother-in-law, chips in: “It is true, only yesterday we buried one old lady who was ill for two days complaining of stomach pains. We believe it has all to do with this contaminated water.”
Dzapasi said government, and Harare City Council in particular, was failing to treat the water or attend to burst sewer pipes resulting in contaminated supplies.
“Every day we are taking the children to the clinic with these water-borne diseases because they keep going back to play in those puddles of effluence.” he said.
“The council will not even act. All they want is to receive water bill payments and they will even cut off defaulters.”
Studies have shown that Harare water is contaminated with impurities, including urine.
Some say Harare citizens are actually drinking purified urine, a serious indictment on the current government record.
Children under the age of five are paying a heavy price for this. Health minister David Parirenyatwa this week said 440 children under the age of five had died of diarrhoeal diseases this year.
“This year alone, over 48 000 cases and 440 deaths from common diarrhoea have been reported countrywide. Dysentery has accounted to date 40 756 cases and 59 deaths while typhoid cases reported in 2013 were 1 475,” he said.
“While most cases are emanating from the rural provinces, the cities and towns have also contributed significant cases with Harare, Chitungwiza and Kadoma reporting outbreaks of typhoid and dysentery in early 2013.”
Given the background of the 2008-2009 cholera outbreak which killed over 4 000 people, described by Human Rights Watch (HRW) as “Africa’s worst epidemic in 15 years”, it is feared suburbs like Glen Norah might be hit by another outbreak if government and the Harare City Council does not act urgently.
“Overall, between 2008 and 2009, 100 000 people in the country fell ill with cholera,” wrote HRW in its recent report titled Troubled Water: Burst Pipes, Contaminated Wells, and Open Defecation in Zimbabwe’s Capital.
What authorities seem to have forgotten is that access to clean and safe drinking water is a right for all people.
The Abuja Declaration adopted at the first Africa-South America Summit in 2006 affirmed “the right of our citizens to have access to clean and safe water and sanitation”, while the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights — which monitors implementation of the United Nations’ International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights by its states parties — speaks of everyone’s right to “sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses.”
The committee says access to water must be continuous, and the amount of water available must be “adequate for human dignity, life and health,” and suffice for drinking, cooking as well as personal and domestic hygiene.
Already people have been diagnosed with water-borne diseases, while others have died from it.
The HRW report points out that women and girls in Harare suffer the most from local and central government’s failure to provide uninterrupted clean and safe water.
Predictably, women and children are the worst affected by the water crisis. Not only will women like Decision spend long hours queuing for water, the report also alludes to other health problems associated with their physiological make-up.
“Girls who are menstruating face numerous challenges in attending school, including lack of appropriate disposal of sanitary pads, severe overcrowding with insufficient toilets, inadequate water supply and little provision for hand washing,” the report says.
According to HRW senior researcher Dewa Mavhinga, government should immediately adopt new policies to solve the water shortages without sacrificing the urban poor.
“The Ministry of Water, Environment and Climate should work with local urban councils to develop and implement a system, such as sliding fees, that would ensure the delivery of affordable and safe piped water to low-income families,” Mavhinga said.
The Combined Harare Residents Association and Harare Residents Trust said the local authority should ring fence revenue from the water account and only use it to rehabilitate the system and procure water treatment chemicals.
In the meantime, while the local authority and government dilly-dally in finding a lasting solution to Harare’s water problems, women like Decision will continue to spend hours queuing for borehole water and pray and hope that none of their beloved will get infected with water-borne diseases.