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Water everywhere, but not to drink

A WaterAid borehole etsablished in Zambia province of Luapula in northern Zambia
(Nebert Mulenga/IRIN)

Inadequate access to safe water and poor sanitation facilities are fuelling poverty in Zambia, an NGO concerned with water issues told IRIN.

"There is a relatively high incidence of water- and sanitation-related diseases, particularly diarrhoea, which result in high health costs to individuals and communities,” said Moses Mumba, a programme officer for WaterAid, a British-based charity.

"It makes them to contribute less to their economic well-being and, therefore, they remain poor," he said.

Zambia has signed up to the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and is attempting to halve the number of people without access to safe water by 2015.

WaterAid is sinking boreholes for impoverished communities in northern Zambia's Luapula Province.

Analysts concede that the country has made inroads to providing greater access to safe water as part of its MDG, but the provision of adequate sanitation has been largely unaddressed.

A 2005 study, The Cost of Meeting the MDGs in Zambia, by University of Zambia economics lecturer Chrispin Mphuka, noted that in the decade leading up to 2000, the proportion of households with safe drinking water had increased by three percent to 51 percent, but the number of households with access to improved sanitation had declined by two percent to 15 percent in the same period,.

Urban areas have relatively good access to potable water, unlike rural areas, where thousands of communities rely on river courses and shallow wells for water, and only a few households have pit latrines.

Theresa Bwalya, a housewife in Samfya district, Luapula Province, told IRIN: "We were all drinking water from the river because there is no tap water here until last year [2008, when WaterAid sank the only borehole in the area]. Now, all of us are competing to draw from here. No one wants to draw [water] from the river anymore.

"There are not many people with toilets and bathing shelters; sometimes we use the river to answer the 'call of nature' [defecate], and to wash clothes. Diarrhoea and stomach pains are very common in this area."

Luapula Province has several rivers and at least two lakes within its boundaries, but the government's Central Statistical Office (CSO) rates the province as having the lowest coverage in terms of safe water (18.8 percent) and sanitation (2.3 percent). The last census, in 2000, listed four of its seven districts among the top 10 with the worst access to both water and sanitation nationwide.

Broken infrastructure

At national level, the CSO estimated that 59 percent of urban households had access to safe water, while only 43 percent of the rural population could access clean water.

About 59 percent of households in Zambia have a pit latrine, while 7.3 percent use communal latrines, and a further 4.6 percent used their neighbour’s latrine.

According to Alfred Nyambose, a provincial local government officer in Luapula, "The biggest problem we have is that in almost every peri-urban set-up, the system [infrastructure] is broken; the system is simply non-existent."

''It is not a question of disregarding the rural voter, but rather a case of dividing the meagre resources appropriately among the many competing needs''

In 2007 the Zambian government launched the National Water and Sanitation Policy in an attempt to increase access to safe drinking water and improve sanitation facilities, but critics say the policy does address the needs of those living in rural areas. "It is not a question of disregarding the rural voter, but rather a case of dividing the meagre resources appropriately among the many competing needs [of the country]," Nyambose said.

"The problem we have been having in this province is not lack of access to water, but it is lack of access to safe, clean drinking water, because water here is everywhere and it can be collected from any point. The question is: is that water fit for human consumption? And the answer is ‘no’."

Since 1994, WaterAid has helped about 400,000 people access safe drinking water and proper sanitation by sinking boreholes fitted with hand-pumps, and encouraging communities in rural and peri-urban areas to build latrines and bathing shelters and dig waste pits.

In Luapula Province, the organisation has so far funded the construction of some 205 water points and 4,577 improved latrines. "With access to safe water, adequate sanitation and good hygiene practices,” Mumba said, “people's opportunities for engaging in productive activities will be increased, thereby improving their socio-economic welfare and taking them out of poverty."


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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