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POVERTY: Water Wars Hit Rural Zimbabwe

Ignatius Banda

PLUMTREE, Oct 16 2008 (IPS) - When water experts warned at the turn of the millennium that soon wars will be fought not over oil anymore but over water, little did Zimbabweans know that they would be some of the first people affected by this dire prediction.

There is increasing competition for water due to a combination of numerous environmental and political factors, including climate change, poor local planning and lack of adequate financial and material resources to bring running water to poor communities.

In rural Zimbabwe, lack of clean water has become a reality for many communities, in addition to other hardships, such as food shortages, insufficient health services and lack of sanitation.

Poor rains and government’s failure to provide adequate resources to reduce water scarcity – including skilled water experts, fuel for field technicians to reach remote areas, drilling machines to make boreholes and water purification chemicals – have worsened water woes.

After president Robert Mugabe embarked on a violent land reform programme, expropriating white-owned commercial farms in 2000, new farm owners have done little to maintain the infrastructure and facilities they inherited when taking over farms, including water systems and irrigation dams.

According to Justice for Agriculture (JAG), a unit set up by the Commercial Farmers of Zimbabwe (CFZ), an organisation that represents the legal interests of dispossessed farmers, wells have dried up throughout the country and no efforts have been made to drill more boreholes to provide water to both humans and livestock.

This is particularly significant since such infrastructure used to provide water for the surrounding communities as well as the farms.


For one rural community, buried deep in the tropical forests between two southern African countries, Zimbabwe and Botswana, the water plight has been particularly harsh when their main water source, a river running between the two countries, almost dried up.

In Plumtree, a poor, drought-prone rural community located about 160 kilometres southwest of Zimbabwe‚s second largest city, Bulawayo, a hostile fight has broken out between neighbouring communities around access to the few remaining water sources.

The Ramakgoebana River has become a major source of conflict for villagers from both sides of the border, Thabiso Mkwena, a 36-year-old man who lives in Tshitshi, near Plumtree, told IPS. "This is a dry area and we have to walk for many kilometres to the fast-drying river. This has led to disputes with villagers from the other side of the river who are accusing us of finishing the water," said Mkwena.

He said residents from the Botswana side of the river have claimed parts of the river as their own, threatening those from the Zimbabwean side with assault if they come to fetch water.

What has heightened tensions even further, Mkwena explained, is that out of desperation, villagers have started to bring their livestock to drink from the river too, as there is no alternative water source for animals.

"The Batswana say we must not bring our livestock here, but we cannot let our cattle die in this heat," Mkwena said.

Letting livestock drink from the same water source as humans has exposed locals to a number of water-borne diseases. Earlier this year, medical staff at the public hospital in Plumtree reported an outbreak of diarrhoea caused by contaminated drinking water.

In Plumtree, not only the river has dried up. Water provision inside the village is scarce as well. As a result, residents are increasingly reluctant to share the little water they have.

"Even here within the village, where people rely on small springs for their water (supply), some have claimed these as their territories, forcing others to walk long distances in search for water," said Themba Gampu, a 33-year-old villager.

Missing water MDG

Zimbabwe committed itself to meeting the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), one of which seeks to provide safe drinking water and sanitation to at least two thirds of its population by 2015, but it is unlikely that government will reach this target.

Although worst in rural areas, water shortages affect the entire country. According to residents associations Combined Harare Residents Association (CHRA) and Bulawayo Progressive Residents Association (BUPRA), urban residents have to live with irregular supply of clean drinking water.

In Bulawayo, for example, residents say they go for up to two days without running water, and when the taps are turned back on, the water is not safe to drink because it has not been purified.

To improve this situation, government officials signed an agreement with the United Nations Educational and Scientific Organisation (UNESCO), the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the Institute of Water and Sanitation Development in May to mobilise funds to supply clean water and sanitation in a country faced by drastic economic recession.

Judith Kateera, permanent secretary for Economic Development in the national Ministry of Environment and Tourism, said the agreement is part of government efforts to "resuscitate water and sanitation institutions countrywide". But five months later, the agreement is yet to be implemented.

James Fuyane, chief water technician at the Plumtree Rural District Council, told IPS that poor water management was mainly caused by lack of financial resources and management.

"We are a council in transition after the elections (of March 2008), and it has become difficult to know who is in charge of what," he says. "We have stopped the maintenance of the few boreholes and water treatment plants in remote areas as we await budget approval."

With government officials like Fuyane unable to help, villagers do not know who to turn to for assistance and have resigned themselves to placing their hopes on the weather.

"We have learnt to live like this," Mkwena said. "We look forward to the coming of the rain and pray that animals also have enough water to drink."

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