Conditions in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, are ripe for another outbreak of cholera, the waterborne disease that claimed an estimated 4,200 lives in the country between 2008 and 2009, according to a new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW).
The report, Troubled Water: Burst Pipes, Contaminated Wells and Open Defecation in Zimbabwe’s Capital, draws on interviews with 80 residents in eight of Harare’s low-income suburbs between September 2012 and October 2013 to describe conditions including “poor sanitation, high-density living conditions, lack of access to potable water, official denial of the magnitude of the problem, and lack of information about the safety of the public water supply”.
In Zengeza, a low-income suburb in the dormitory town of Chitungwiza, some 30km south of Harare, residents have resorted to dumping rubbish at undesignated points due to erratic collections. The municipality blames a critical shortage of trucks and frequent strikes by its workforce, but refuse collection workers say they have gone without pay for months.
One dumpsite near the local primary school includes used nappies and sanitary products, food, plastics and even human faeces. Tapiwa Phiri*, 34, a teacher at the school explained that local residents dispose of human waste at night because a critical water shortage in the suburb has made their toilets unusable.
“The main killer here is the lack of water that we have lived with for many years now,” said Phiri whose 3-year-old daughter died last year of dysentery, a waterborne disease. He suspects she contracted it when she crawled into a toilet that was overflowing with human waste during a prolonged water cut.
Chitungwiza, like most urban areas in Zimbabwe, often goes without water for more than a month because its main supplier, the Harare municipality, is facing a critical shortage of chemicals to treat raw sewage, and an ageing water infrastructure that frequently breaks down.
Since his daughter’s death, Phiri, who earns just US$280 a month, and his wife, a vegetable vendor in the town, have cut down on basic commodities in order to buy bottled mineral water for drinking. When water does come out of the tap it is rusty and smells foul, and Phiri and his family use it only for washing clothes and bathing.
“I now spend about a third of my salary on buying bottled water for my wife and four other family members,” said Phiri. “I know other residents are just boiling the water, which sometimes has raw human waste in it, and drinking it.”
More than 600 pupils at his school have been forced to depend on tap water—when it is available—during lesson time since the school’s well dried up in March this year. On six occasions the authorities have sent the pupils home due to critical water shortages.
Weekly disease updates compiled by the health ministry note that between the beginning of 2013 and early November, 1,472 typhoid cases were recorded countrywide as well as six cases of cholera, 432 deaths caused by diarrhoea and 59 deaths resulting from dysentery.
However, the HRW report notes that over 3,000 typhoid cases were reported in Harare alone during the past year, and healthcare workers believe the actual number to be much higher.
Residents “ration” water
Hundreds of Chitingwiza residents queue at the only borehole in the suburb, which was installed by the international humanitarian community during the cholera epidemic. According to HRW, more than 200 such wells were drilled at the time but the donors, among them UNICEF Zimbabwe, have since handed over responsibility for the boreholes to the municipalities, which have not maintained them.
A third of the boreholes tested in January 2013 by Harare Water were found to be contaminated. Some residents who contributed to the HRW report said they had dug their own shallow wells in an effort to get water. Such wells are particularly susceptible to contamination from sewage and other groundwater.
The World Health Organization recommends that every person access between 50 and 100 litres of water per day for basic use, but Phiri’s family of six gets a total of only about 80 litres from the borehole. The HRW report notes that the shortage of water is forcing residents to ration it for basic sanitation and hygiene needs. Mothers were unable to wash nappies and people unable to flush their toilets were resorting to relieving themselves outside.
Some people have been disconnected from public water supplies after being unable to pay exorbitant bills issued by the city council. Theresa Mvura, 60, who cares for two orphaned grandchildren, told IRIN that she has been struggling to get water from the crowded boreholes since her supply was disconnected by the city council a year ago over an $800 bill.
“I don’t know how the council came to that figure because we hardly had any water until they disconnected us,” she said. “I can’t pay for the arrears because I survive on selling vegetables. I have to depend entirely on neighbours’ wells and the borehole, but the neighbours are now selling the water, while others’ wells have dried up.”
She added that her grandchildren hardly get any rest because after school they join the queue at the borehole and sometimes only come home in the early hours of the following morning.
The HRW report recommends that the government and municipal authorities invest in low-cost sanitation technologies such as pit latrines and community toilets, and water-saving initiatives like cisterns for harvesting rainwater. It also calls for residents to be regularly informed about water quality. Ultimately, the report concludes, the city’s piped water infrastructure needs to be upgraded. “In the meantime, the government should make use of lower-cost options to ensure that people have sufficient potable water.”
At the opening of parliament in September, President Robert Mugabe announced that a $144 million loan from China would be used to upgrade Harare’s water infrastructure through a plan that would see the construction of three new dams and an additional water treatment plant over the next seven years.
However, in a press release on 19 November, HRW pointed out that the terms of the loan have not been made public and described it as “exemplifying the lack of transparency and corruption in water and sewage services”.
* Not his real name