Zimbabwe’s four main cities, including Harare, are fast running out of drinking water as years of lack of investment in key infrastructure is beginning to take its toll on residents.
Harare, Masvingo, Bulawayo and Gweru rely on supply dams that were built before the country’s independence from Britain in 1980 when their population sizes were less than half of what they are today.
The acute water shortages have been worsened by one of the worst droughts to hit the Southern African country in years.
Bulawayo, a city of close to one million people, says its dams are 40 per cent full and has imposed 48-hour water cuts a week to preserve the commodity until the next rainy season.
The city has already stopped pumping water from one of its six supply dams after it ran dry and another one will be decommissioned next month.
Bulawayo’s last supply dam was built by the local authority in 1976, before the Water Act was changed, giving sole authority for dam construction to central government.
Former president Robert Mugabe’s administration did not build any new water source for the city for the 37 years he was in power until he was disposed in a coup in 2017.
Bulawayo, which lies in the dry south western part of the country, has been pushing for an ambitious project that envisages the construction of a 450 kilometre pipeline to divert water from Zambezi River.
First mooted in 1912, the project is seen as the most viable answer to the city’s perennial water problems but the required $2 million investment remains elusive for country that has suffered almost two decades of economic malaise.
Bulawayo’s water problems, however, are dwarfed by the crisis facing the capital Harare, a city of more than two million people.
On September 23, Harare shut down its water treatment plant after running out of foreign currency to buy water treatment chemicals.
Prior to the shutdown the city was only able to supply the millions of residents with water only twice a week because its dams are running dry.
Since the shutdown, the government has been providing foreign currency to buy the chemicals but activists say the interventions are not enough.
They are advocating for a nationwide solution that would include the construction of dams to supply major cities and avert an outbreak of water borne diseases such as typhoid and cholera, which have become common in Harare.
The activists say the water crisis in cities has been worsened by 18-hour power cuts that began in May because the country’s main source of hydropower—Kariba Dam—is also running dry.
“Some residents have resorted to drilling boreholes to access clean water, however, these boreholes require electricity to pump water, something which is a challenge considering the constant power cuts lasting up to 18 hours daily,” said the Zimbawe Peace Project (ZPP).
“Generally most local authorities throughout the country cannot pump running water to residents due to power cuts.
“Those with water tanks on their properties rely on individuals or privately-owned water companies to pump water into the tanks at considerable cost often pegged in United States dollars.”
These water sources are often contaminated due to poor sanitation and as a result cities such as Harare often battle with outbreaks of typhoid and cholera.
Last year, a cholera outbreak killed 30 people in Harare and left thousands hospitalised.
There were also frequent typhoid outbreaks that spread to cities outside Harare.
The largest cholera outbreak in Zimbabwe was recorded in 2008 where 4,369 deaths were reported out of 98,956 cases countrywide.
To a large extent, the severity of the outbreak was attributed to limited access to water and poor sanitation.
Activists say a similar outbreak is always lurking around Zimbabwe’s water starved cities.
“The water and sanitation crisis places millions of residents at risk of contracting waterborne diseases,” ZPP added.
“Residents have often resorted to drinking water from shallow, unprotected wells that are contaminated.”
The organisation said women and children were bearing the brunt of the water crisis in Zimbabwe’s cities.
“Women and children especially young girls bear the brunt of the water crisis,” ZPP said.
“This group spends most of their days looking for water and there have been reports of men soliciting sexual favours from women so that they easily access water at boreholes.”
A civic group, the Community Water Alliance Trust (CWAT), on October 3 took President Emmerson Mnangagwa to court, seeking to force him to declare the Harare water crisis a national disaster.
High Court judge Justice Owen Tagu reserved judgment in the case that could trigger similar action by groups in other cities.
CWAT argued that despite the severity of the water crisis, President Mnangagwa had failed to exercise his powers to declare a state of disaster, which will pave the way for donor support.
“We have a water problem in the city and why is the president not declaring a state of disaster so that they will be mobilisation of resources from various stake holders,” CWAT lawyer Denford Halimani said.
An economic crisis stretching for over two decades has seen a collapse of Zimbabwe’s water and sanitation infrastructure due to lack of maintenance and expansion to match a growing population.
The country is also struggling to generate foreign currency to buy water treatment chemicals.