Would You Drink Dirty Water To Survive? Zimbabweans Struggle With Extreme Drought

5 Mins Read

ByNesia Mhaka

Drought has hit Zimbabwe with a vengeance. Water supply to several neighbourhoods is severely limited, while people in the countryside scramble for resources. Meanwhile, in a Harare suburb, residents have resorted to unsafe water for survival.

The scorching sun makes it impossible for elderly people like Mrs Sheila Mushaikwa to see into the distance. She resorts to using her left hand to shield her eyes from the rays as she walks down the Granville Cemetery, in Hopley, a suburb of Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe. 

But today she’s not here to honour her dead. She has come to buy water. It has been a while since the taps in her bungalow went dry.

Mrs Mushaikwa has lived in Harare since 1995. Since then, climate change has ravaged water sources, upending her traditional knowledge of the resource. Erratic rainfall and extreme temperatures, often reaching 44 ºC, have depleted the region’s water tables. Now, the graveyard, built on a wetland, is Hopley’s last resort.

Dire situation

The water situation in Zimbabwe is dire. Most Harare suburbs don’t receive any water for up to six days per week. Some even go for months or years without access to tap water.

The situation has forced people to resort to other alternatives, like drawing water from unprotected and untreated sources. That comes with its own dangers. Water-borne diseases like diarrhoea, cholera, typhoid, dysentery and Guinea worm have been known to break out in areas exposed to contaminated water due to lack of potable options.

Health Researcher Mr Edmore Mukwashi claims that up to 80 per cent of illnesses in the developing world are linked to inadequate water and poor sanitation.

Source: Cynthia R. Matonhodze / Bloomberg

Water from the dead

Mrs Mushaikwa used to have more than enough water. She never thought that one day she would have to buy water drawn from a wetland cemetery. But now she is a worried woman, devastated by a string of water shortages due to climate change.

Hopley’s residents have invaded Granville Cemetery, where they dig shallow wells from which to draw water and sell it to people living nearby for $5.00 a bucket

One of the Hopley residents, Mrs Sarah Tichagarika said circumstances have forced them to use such water, even though she’s aware of the risks.

“As you can see, our homes are less than 10 metres away from the graves, but our wells dried up a long time ago. This has compelled us to fetch water from these shallow wells despite the water being unsafe.”

“Due to this situation, our area is now prone to a lot of water-borne diseases such as cholera, typhoid and bilharzia, especially during this rainy season,” she said. 

Drought woes

Zimbabwe, like most developing countries in Africa and the world over, is burdened by water shortages, flooding and poor water quality.  Extreme drought in the country has led to water rationing, falling of dam water levels, livestock deaths, and widespread crop failures leading to severe food shortages.

In numerous rural areas, water boreholes have either dried up or broken down due to overuse and a receding water table. Now it’s common to find communities where a single borehole supplies over 10,000 villagers.

Some people in rural areas walk over 10 kilometres under the sun to access water from other sources. 

The water line

In urban areas, people spend their days in unending queues. Hopley is not an exception: the community is growing impatient as the reality of yet another drought dawns. 

The water crisis has been particularly devastating for women who now have to spend most of their time, fetching water instead of attending to other chores. 

Mrs Kudzai Chipiwa, who has lived in Hopley since 2010 explains that the majority of women in the area rely on vending and other menial and piece jobs to supplement their family incomes. But now they’ve had to abandon these activities and devote the time to fetch water.

“We should not be spending sleepless nights worrying about getting water, because it is a basic need that we should have access to. Our lives have been disrupted and we do not know when this will end. With no alternative accommodation for the majority of people who live here, we just have to soldier on. We, however, remain optimistic that our problem will be resolved one day,” she said.

Source: Jekesai Njikizana / AFP via Getty Images

Water profiteers

But some people are making a profit from the situation. Mr Munyaradzi Masinjara, who owns a well in the cemetery, said he was forced to encroach into a section of the graveyard because wells within the Hopley settlement had dried up.

“As you can see, this is a wetland, so I knew that if I dug a well here I would get water. I have been selling water from this well for over a year now,” he said.

Mr Masinjara said that, on average, he gets 80 to 100 clients per day.

“I have been helping a lot of people since August last year. Initially, the idea was to use it to water my garden here (that is less than five metres from another section of graves), but now I charge people $5 per bucket,” he said.

Hopley residents, as well as consumer and human rights organisations, have accused local authorities of violating the Constitution by failing to supply residents with water, a basic human right

They felt it was important that local authorities such as the Zimbabwe National Water Authority (Zinwa) and Harare’s City Council consider the lives of people first and not only react to drought when disease outbreaks and deaths occur.

City authorities confirmed they were aware of the situation in Hopley. A spokesperson told CT they are organising to send a team with water browsers to relieve residents with safe water. 

Mrs Sheila Mushaikwa urged the Government and city authorities to act as soon as possible: “We want Government and council authorities to act on the water crisis now before the situation worsens. This is not healthy at all. Our lives are now at risk.”

Find more news on the climate emergency from Green Queen here & read our earlier coverage of Covid-19 here.

Climate Tracker | iF WORLD DESIGN GUIDE

This story originally appeared in ClimateTracker.org and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalistic collaboration to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

Lead image courtesy of WFP / Tatenda Macheka.


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