IN the dead of night on Sunday in the shanty Lusaka area of Harare’s Highfield suburb, a group of women carrying torches gather around a tap at one of the few centres which gets regular water supply.
Queuing for water in the middle of the night has become a way of life for residents in the high-density suburbs. They sleep early and wake up at midnight to queue for hours before daybreak.
The tap, at a community centre, services hundreds of people living around the area.On that cold night, Nyaradzo Ndiweni, with a baby strapped to her back, breaks the silence after waiting for close to three hours for the water to come out.
“Our water problem has really become like the hen-and-egg question. No-one gives straight answers. Council says it cannot pump water to its residents because they are not getting power from Zesa. Zesa says it cannot generate power because Kariba has run out of water,” she said.
The women gathered around the tap erupt into a frenzy when the water starts gushing out. These women consider themselves lucky as they only walk a short distance to fetch the water.
In other parts of the high-density suburb, the residents are not so lucky.As always, women bear the brunt of the water crisis. The women in these areas have to wake up in the middle of the night and walk long distances to fetch water from boreholes sparsely scattered across the suburb.
At the community tap in Lusaka, Nyaradzo is the first to run water into her bucket. But, with arms thrown up in frustration and a dejected expression, she flashes her torch into the bucket now full of dirty water. The water is slimy and smelly, with definite evidence of faecal.
This is the case throughout Harare. Residents have become accustomed to dirty slimy water coming out of their taps.Last year, a water quality test commissioned by the Harare City Council through Nanotechnology Water of South Africa revealed that the city is pumping water laced with deadly toxins that can potentially cause liver and central nervous system ailments.
The tests were conducted as the city struggled to mobilise US$3 million required to import treatment chemicals every month to guarantee its three million residents of consistent supplies, barring other unpredictable challenges.
“As you may be aware, the primary objective of the trial was to demonstrate the oxidative capacity of Chlorine Dioxide on the plant’s incoming and inherent algae in the plant and its associated toxins, pathogenic (disease-causing) micro-organisms and other micro-contaminants),” the report signed off by Nanotech programmes manager Gideon Reyneke reads.
“The plant trial results were as follows: 100% oxidation and/or removal of algae and associated toxins specially hapatotoxins and neurotoxins by Chloride Dioxide. 100% removal of biofilms and associated algae in the clarifies number eight and consequently, the water clarity was visually and aesthetically improved.
“The significance of the results is as follows: oxidation of algae, particularly filamentous algae, which is not possible with the current battery of chemicals. Chlorine Dioxide usage will lead to less rapid sand filter backwashes, longer filter run times and consequently more water produced.”
Although the quality of water is poor, Harare residents use the water for cleaning, washing and other household chores, while using borehole water for drinking.
For the past three months, Highfield, for example, has not received consistent water and power supplies, condemning its dwellers to a life of abject misery. The problem of erratic water supply has become widespread in Zimbabwe, with some areas like Mabvuku, Chitungwiza and Ruwa going for years without consistent supplies. On the odd occasion when water comes out, it is usually at midnight when people are asleep.
In Zimbabwe, where public office bearers have generally become economical with the truth, no-one has been able to sufficiently explain the root cause of the problem. It has just been finger-pointing, with the Zanu PF government and MDC-led council blaming each other for the water crisis.
Amid the water woes, itself a symptom of a deep-seated economic malaise, Zimbabweans have never been short of jokes to dramatise their misery.
Shockingly, even after publication of the damning report which sparked outrage from residents, Harare mayor Herbert Gomba said the water, infested with those detected toxins, was safe for consumption.
Gomba said: “(The water is) safe to the extent of the feedback we are getting from our quality control team and those who look at standards of product on the market.
“Nanotech recommendations were more to do with the reduction of chemicals in use and the introduction of chlorine dioxide as a substitute to the many we are using,” he told this newspaper last month.
The women, including Nyaradzo, have to use the water sparingly.They have to use it for cooking, bathing, laundry and flushing the ablution facilities from the two bucket loads of water.
But, sometimes even that water from rinsed laundry runs out. In such cases, Nyaradzo tries as much as possible to restrain her three children from using the toilet, which most of the times is blocked and emits an unbearable stench.
“When we run out of water, I have no choice, but to prevent the kids from defecating in the toilet. They have to make use of the nearby bushes.
“We have no choice,” Nyaradzo sighs, “What can we do?”
In the clearest sign showing the extent of Harare’s water challenges, the Parliament of Zimbabwe drilled a borehole in the heart of the capital city last year. It was drilled at the height of the water woes, when the central business district was cut off from consistent water supplies.
Opposition legislators criticised central government, blaming Zanu PF for concentrating on sideshows at a time the city is running dry.
“In a development that seems to mark a new low, Parliament of Zimbabwe is now sinking a borehole at the Parliament Building! Yet in the face of biting economic challenges this government is preoccupied with amending the constitution,” MDC legislator Douglas Mwonzora railed at the time on microblogging site, Twitter.
Clerk of Parliament Kennedy Chokuda acknowledged that in the midst of the water crisis, drilling a borehole was the only practical way to beat the water crisis.
“It (drilling the borehole) was a fallback position on the provision of adequate water supplies to the building,” Chokuda said this week.
But for Nyaradzo in Highfield suburb, where relief agencies have sunk a number of boreholes to ease the crisis, she still has to wake up at midnight to fetch what has become Harare’s water — a slimy, putrid liquid that is harmful to the liver and central nervous system.