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ZIMBABWE: A Water and Sewerage Crisis That Goes "Straight to the Grave"

Tonderai Kwidini

HARARE, Sep 30 2007 (IPS) - A young Zimbabwean couple glances furtively around before settling on a bench in a bare patch of ground that used to be a recreational park in Glen View, a sprawling, high-density suburb of the capital, Harare. It’s a Monday morning, and the two of them are struggling to come to terms with a strange sickness that has gripped their family. Every move they make in the direction of the Glen View One Satellite Clinic shows they are in great pain.

"We are going to the clinic to seek medical attention. We have been twisting and turning all night and we don’t know what has hit us, but I suspect it’s the untreated water that we are drinking," Charles Nemukundu tells IPS as he leads his partner to the clinic, where waterborne diseases are being treated for free.

A water shortage and dilapidated sanitation works have caused Harare to become stifled by pools of open sewage and filthy public toilets.

Groups of women with buckets on their heads have become a common sight around streams that many residents of the city now use as their main source of water. Various toxic substances are deposited into the streams on a daily basis; yet the prospect of contracting diseases does not prevent people from drawing water there.

As a result, the incidence of waterborne diseases such as dysentery, diarrhoea and cholera has increased to such an extent that the Harare City Council (HCC) is obliged to offer free treatment.

The city’s health department last month warned of an imminent disaster in the capital if the water situation was not addressed. "The cases of diarrhoea reported and being treated at our clinics are increasing daily. We are treating 900 cases daily," an official at the HCC who preferred to remain anonymous told IPS.

Those living in the more affluent suburbs have also been caught up in the water crisis.

"Since the start of the problems, I have been buying mineral water from the shops for my children, but now I can’t do that any more because there is nothing left in the shops and I don’t know what to do now. I have tried boiling the water but it’s not helping either," said Gladys Mtombeni, a resident of Hillside, one of Harare’s more upmarket areas.

The current health crisis intensified when the Zimbabwe National Water Authority (ZINWA) took over the running of the city’s water affairs from the HCC. The takeover was met with considerable public opposition that went largely ignored by the authorities.

"The government has vowed it will go ahead with the project even as health officials show that recent deaths are due to the incompetence of ZINWA and that whole urban areas are threatened because ZINWA cannot be relied upon to provide water regularly," commented the weekly Standard newspaper in an editorial.

"Just how many more people must die in order to convince the government that this is a man-made catastrophe?"

A resident of Harare voiced similar sentiments in a letter to the editor published in a daily newspaper.

"Things might be hard, but it does not mean we have to accept living with our own waste in our kitchens. I suggest we declare the current water and sewer problems a national disaster. A stitch in time saves nine, lest we head for a catastrophic health situation," wrote the resident.

ZINWA says it is struggling to provide water and sewerage services to residents of the capital because ageing infrastructure has not been properly maintained. The lack of maintenance means that sewerage pipes burst repeatedly.

The country’s foreign currency shortages exacerbate the problem, making it difficult to import the raw materials needed to produce chemicals for the treatment of effluent. With an official inflation rate of 6,600 percent and an unofficial rate of almost twice that figure, many Zimbabwean companies that used to produce water treatment chemicals have been forced to suspend their operations. ZINWA now has to import the chemicals directly from overseas.

While Zimbabwe's economy continues its downward slide, it will probably be all but impossible to raise the funds required to restore normal water and sewerage services to all urban areas in the country.

The government of President Robert Mugabe has been accused of demolishing the economy through – amongst others – an ill-advised land reform programme. In the most recent case of mismanagement, an edict from government instructed retailers to cut all prices by fifty percent. This instruction, in an economy already crippled by rampant inflation, made it difficult for store supplies to be replenished – and has caused many businesses to stop trading.

Noted Jabusile Shumba, a senior programmes officer for the Combined Harare Residents Association: "…we are in a crisis which has reached health menace status. This is certainly a national disaster which other people have made and are allowing to continue straight to the grave."

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