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DEVELOPMENT-SWAZILAND: Water – "Just a Matter of Delivery"?

James Hall

MBABANE, Oct 20 2007 (IPS) - The main religious ceremony of the Swazi people is the "Incwala" or ‘Festival of the First Fruits’, held in late December. Dressed in traditional attire, tens of thousands of Swazi men and women dance and chant prayers to their ancestors. They seek good rains that will ensure abundant crops.

This year, their prayers will be more fervent than ever.

Swaziland is in the grip of another drought, and withered maize stalks in dusty fields, rural women who spend ever more time searching for potable water, residents of urban informal settlements forced to use polluted streams and dropping river levels all testify to a water crisis.

For years Swazi water authorities have denied that there is a fundamental lack of water in the small country of just over a million inhabitants. There was simply a need to distribute available supplies to water scarce areas, they claimed.

"It’s just a matter of delivery," said Jameson Mkhonta, public affairs officer at the government-controlled Swaziland Water Services Corporation, and vice-chairman of government’s Water Crisis Committee.

"Swaziland has lots of rivers flowing through the country. If we had the money to interconnect these rivers, we could become self-sufficient in water during summer," he told IPS. "If we just had some means of harvesting the water during the rainy season, then we could achieve water self-sufficiency all year round."

Yet, the recurrence of drought has cast doubt on these assertions – and raised questions water officials are probably loathe to confront, such as whether some areas of the country are essentially uninhabitable due to previous dry spells going back 15 years.

Swaziland’s population has almost tripled since the kingdom became independent in 1968. This rapid growth has forced local chiefs, who distribute the land on which 80 percent of the population resides, to settle people on marginal land ill-suited for cultivation.

Cattle numbers have also increased, with the livestock denuding hills of vegetation as they graze, and causing soil erosion to become a problem.

Desertification has set in, further compromising water supplies.

Government has described the 2007 drought as "the worst ever" – shown in the way humans and cattle have been forced to share shrunken community ponds and dams.

Ben Nsibandze, chairman of the National Emergency Response Committee, has blamed global warming for the increased frequency of droughts in Swaziland. He said that his countrymen needed to recognise this change.

"This global warming affecting the world, it is hurting us here, too. Rains used to come every September. Now it is November and even December when rains fall," Nsibandze noted.

The Water Crisis Committee has based its plan for national water self-sufficiency on the notion of piping water from where it is available to where it is needed, supplemented by drilling boreholes to tap into groundwater supplies.

In terms of the plan, government will also have to build new reservoirs.

But, the shortcomings of such a scheme are becoming more apparent with each passing day given the lack of rains to fill existing reservoirs, let alone new ones.

Instead, water rationing is in place in the capital, Mbabane, and the upscale community of Ezulwini, where Swaziland’s principal tourist hotels are clustered.

Subsistence farmers have abandoned irrigation systems set up to help them produce marketable vegetable crops or to form co-operatives to grow sugarcane for export.

"A friend of mine grew up around the dam that supplies Mbabane with water, and since the time he was a little boy, he said he has never seen it so low," said Dave Magugula, an Mbabane truck mechanic whose side business, a car wash, is in jeopardy due to the water shortage.

Waters in the reservoir serving Manzini, Swaziland’s largest urban centre, are also receding. Parts of Manzini, such as the Fairview suburb, have faced periodic water cuts since last summer.

Most residents, however, are not connected to the town’s water supply as they live in informal settlements such as KaKhoza and Madonsa. For these persons, the drought has turned daily life into a desperate struggle to find a basic necessity.

Exacerbating the water crisis is a scandal developing in the Logoba informal settlement to the west of Manzini.

Earlier this month, 71 foetuses were found dumped in the stream normally used by residents to wash and cook. Authorities believe that women working at nearby factories faced with unwanted pregnancies had illegal abortions and then dumped the foetuses in the stream.

Police are still in the process of recovering more foetuses, and have prevented the local population from using the stream for the foreseeable future. Impoverished residents now have to purchase water from local vendors.

Christopher Fakudze, an economist at the Ministry of Natural Resources who specialises in water resource management, said that under government targets set 10 years ago, 61 percent of the population was intended to have access to clean water by 2007.

Currently, only 54 percent of the population has access to potable water.

Fakudze argued that connecting more people to the water distribution system would not solve this problem – because there would not be enough water to go round.

He added that drilling more boreholes would be equally futile because the same lack of rainfall that has caused reservoirs to run dry has had similar effects on aquifers.

"Even the water tables are affected, according to our engineers. People drill boreholes, but in a number of cases these are dry wells," said Fakudze.

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