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 Thursday 04 October 2007
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ZIMBABWE: Parched city braces for disease outbreak

Photo: Manoocher Deghati/IRIN
Looking for water
BULAWAYO, 19 September 2007 (IRIN) - Desperate measures being taken by residents of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second city, to cushion the effects of acute water shortages are aggravating the health problems of its 1.5 million residents.

Stringent water rationing has been introduced in a bid to make the contents of fast-dwindling dams last until the onset of the expected rains in November, but the municipal council acknowledges that the poor inflows of water into the southern city's reservoirs has led to an increase in waterborne diseases.

Council spokesperson Pathisa Nyathi told IRIN the "Council is making every effort to ensure those who have contracted diarrhoea receive treatment before more people are affected," but declined to disclose how many residents had suffered from waterborne diseases since the shortages began in earnest five months ago.

"We are praying that we do not get a cholera outbreak because that will be difficult to control, but as water shortages continue we are likely to get a cholera outbreak in the city, but as of now we are doing everything to contain the diarrhoea and dysentery cases," Nyathi said.

''The situation is critical and as water levels deteriorate, residents will be getting water once in every eleven days, and we expect this to happen as from the beginning of October''
"The situation is critical and as water levels deteriorate, residents will be getting water once in every eleven days, and we expect that to happen as from the beginning of October this year."

Last year's poor rains, which resulted in some of the city's dams being decommissioned, has translated into a life of waiting for Makhosana Siziba, a resident in the working-class suburb of Nkulumane. "Life has become a routine of queuing," Siziba told IRIN, who spends up to five hours daily at one of the municipality's boreholes.

"At times fights break out over positions in the water queue. As far as I can recall it has never been as bad as this," the 45-year-old mother of three said, remembering the 1992 drought when water rationing was also introduced in the city.

Hand pumps find favour

Zimbabwe's seven-year economic recession, which has seen inflation climb to over 6,000 percent and shortages of electricty, fuel and food become commonplace, is deepening the plight of residents, because many borehole pumps are driven by electric motors.

"When electricity is cut we have to walk to the neighbouring suburb, where a non-governmental organisation (NGO) has sunk a borehole fitted with a hand pump. In most cases, the queue will have stretched for almost a kilometre," she told IRIN.

The difficulty in obtaining water means her children leave for school without washing, as "regular bathing has become a luxury", she said.

To counter the erratic electricity supply, the Department for International Development, an international aid agency, has equipped 176 of the 230 boreholes sunk in and around the city with hand pumps so water can still be drawn when power outages occur, albeit at a slower pace, causing even longer queues.

Impatient residents have taken to digging shallow wells, but the lower levels of hygiene associated with this are heightening the risk of waterborne diseases, despite pleas from the city authorities to refrain from the practice.

Bulawayo resident Mandla Ndlovu told IRIN that sourcing water from the backyard wells has had its consequences. "My family suffered stomach aches and had to be hospitalised after drinking water from the unprotected wells, and we are now resorting to buying water sourced from boreholes, as it is safer."

A 20-litre bucket of water sells for Z$25,000 (US$0.09 at the parallel market rate of Z$300,000 to US$1) in working-class suburbs, while in middle-class areas the same amount of water fetches twice as much.

Prioritising water use is having a knock-on effect on sanitation practices: in a bid to reduce water consumption, households are using flush toilets sparingly and instead digging shallow furrows in their backyards for ablutions.

"We have to use the water sparingly whenever possible. We are fortunate that we have a big yard, and reserve the use of temporary pit latrines for children to relieve themselves, while the adults use the flush toilet indoors," said Siphathekile Ngwenya, 50, in the suburb of Waterford.

"It works for me because I have five children of my own, two others I inherited from my late sister, and an ailing mother-in law to look after," Ngwenya told IRIN.

Underground water supplies polluted

Bulawayo's health services director, Dr Zanele Hwalima, has warned against pit latrines because of the associated health risks. "Wide use of pit latrines in built-up areas such as the high-density suburbs is not feasible, considering the proximity of houses in these areas."

"Bulawayo is increasingly relying on borehole water for domestic use. The use of thousands of pit latrines in high-density suburbs will pollute our underground water systems, and lead to other unforeseen environmental problems," said director of Housing and Community Services Isaiah Magagula.
''Bulawayo is increasingly relying on borehole water for domestic use. The use of thousands of pit latrines in high density suburbs will pollute our underground water systems''

Residents are aware of the dangers of polluting the groundwater and are taking measures to alleviate the effect of their alternative sanitation practices by "borrowing" from the ecological sanitation (Ecosan) system developed by the UN children's fund (UNICEF) and World Vision.

The concept involves twin pit toilets, one metre deep, dug adjacent to each other. One hole is kept as dry as possible and after every visit to the toilet a mixture of ashes and soil is added to the pit to raise the pH level, which balances the acidity or alkalinity of the contents and inhibits the growth of pathogenic bacteria.

The only somewhat silver lining to the widespread electricity outages is that wood is increasingly being used as a fuel for cooking and warmth, generating plenty of ash to sprinkle into pit latrines.

In periods of normal rainfall, five reservoirs - Inyankuni, Lower Ncema, Insiza, Umzingwane and Upper Ncema - supply the city's daily requirement of 120,000 cubic metres of water, but two of its dams, Umzingwane and Upper Ncema, have been decommissioned, leaving only 69,000 cubic metres for all the city's requirements.

Another of the city's reservoirs, Insiza, is to be decommissioned at the end of September, which will make the water shortage even more acute. The council plans to deploy water bowsers to alleviate the situation, but there are fears that it may not have the necessary resources to cope with the anticipated demand.

The politics of water

The last supply dam for Bulawayo was built by the council in 1976, before the Water Act was amended, giving sole authority for dam construction to the central government. No dams have been constructed for the city by President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF government since it assumed power in 1980, when Zimbabwe obtained independence from Britain.

However, the southwestern part of the country, including Matabeleland North and South provinces, has tended to support the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in elections.

Although the water shortages are generally being attributed to severe drought conditions, the resident ZANU-PF government minister for Bulawayo, Cain Mathema, is blaming the city council.

''The city is in this water crisis because of politics and poor planning by the opposition [MDC] council. They should allow government to take over water supply''
"The city is in this water crisis because of politics and poor planning by the opposition [MDC] council. They should allow government to take over water supply through ZINWA [Zimbabwe National Water Authority] and unless that is done government will not help out."

The executive mayor of Bulawayo, Japhet Ndabeni-Ncube, was elected to office in 2002 and has resisted attempts by ZINWA to assume responsibility for the sewerage and water management of the city. The mayor claims that the government water authority has failed to deliver water services to other cities, such as the national capital, Harare, when it assumed overall responsibility for water services.

"Our view is that [the Bulawayo] council would prefer the status quo, as it has not failed in its mandate to deliver water to the consumers. There is nothing confrontational about this," Ndabeni-Ncube said.

Among several government departments in arrears to the Bulawayo council for water and sewage charges, amounting to a total of Z$8.5 billion (US$28,350), the Rural Resources and Water Development ministry, which falls under the authority of ZINWA, owes the Bulawayo city council its biggest debt - Z$3.9 billion (US$13,000).

To boost water supplies, the council is attempting to resuscitate boreholes in the Nyamandlovu Aquifer, about 50km northeast of the city. Only eight of the aquifer's 77 boreholes are functioning, yielding 298 cubic meters of water per day, as opposed to the 16,000 cubic metres supplied to the city when all boreholes are operational.

It will cost Z$50 billion (US$166,660) to rehabilitate the 69 non-operational boreholes, but the ZANU-PF government has been reluctant to release the money for the project.

Instead, it favours the construction of the Matabeleland Zambezi Water Project, which envisages the construction of a 450km pipeline to divert water from the Zambezi River to Bulawayo at a cost of about Z$600 billion (US$2 million).


Theme(s): (IRIN) Economy, (IRIN) Environment, (IRIN) Food Security, (IRIN) Governance


[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
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