Busani Bafana
September 10, 2012

Residents of Zimbabwe’s second city, Bulawayo, have since last week been going without water for 72 hours under a programme to save dwindling supplies which at current consumption rates may see the city of more than 1 million people running dry.

Though used to scarce water supplies, Bulawayo residents have a new reason to worry about poor sanitation and an outbreak of diseases. Poor water supplies and sanitation programme in a number of cities in Zimbabwe led to a major cholera outbreak which killed more than 4000 people between 2008 and 2009. This year, the country has reported more than 3000 cases of typhoid.

The Bulawayo City Council is now cutting off water to households for 72 hours up from 48 hours, in a move Bulawayo residents fear is a ticket to a health crisis as good sanitation is compromised.

City authorities citing shrinking water levels in the remaining three supply dams and high daily water use by residents, this week tighten a tough water shedding programme introduced in July 2012.

Water shedding in Bulawayo is an additional measure to a standing water rationing programme that restricts domestic consumers to 300 and 350 litres a day in the high and low income areas, respectively. But efforts meant to encourage the saving of precious supplies through a planned programme are also leading to water wastage. Residents often have disposed of previously stored water and the frequent bursts in the city’s aged pipe network which have increased by 50 percent have not helped the situation.

“At first it was hard to accepted water shedding because two days were serious, not this is worse,” complained Cuthbert Nyoni, a Bulawayo resident who lives in Pelandaba suburb which has experienced the new water shedding schedule.

Residents of Bulawayo fetch water from a borehole

The city council has also formed a multi-stakeholder Water Crisis Committee headed by the Mayor to monitor the water crisis, recommend solutions, provide materials and expertise to manage the situation. In addition, has issued a notice on the water quality, urging residents to allow water to settle depending on its quality and to boil all borehole water.

Residents and sanitation professionals warn the city could be inviting serious health problems, not to mention, hoarding as a result of new measures to save water, a problem that has dogged the Bulawayo since it was founded over 100 years ago.

The water saving regime, while meant to save the city from growing dry will in the long term expose the city in the event of disease outbreak.

Senior Public Relations Officer, Nesisa Mpofu, says the city council has provided water bowsers with a capacity of at least 7000 litres as a stand to supply residential areas with water in case the shedding takes longer than the intended three days.

“Bowsers will also serve areas that are affected by bursts or low pressure during the non-water shedding hours,” Mpofu said adding the provision of bowsers was to help prevent the outbreak of diseases.

But some residents are not sure the stringent water shedding is working.

“I am not sure this decision is indeed saving water,” Bulawayo Progressive Residents’ Association, spokesman, Roderick Fayayo said. “To save water for three days, you need more containers and often when supplies are restored, the water is brown and people throw it away. There is need to discuss this issue further as we run a huge risk of a disease outbreaks.”

Data compiled by the World Health Organization and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Joint Monitoring Programme shows that Zimbabwe’s national targets are 80 percent for rural sanitation, 100 percent for urban sanitation, and 100 percent for rural and urban water supply.

Based on the most recent estimates of sanitation coverage in 2010, Zimbabwe needs to increase coverage from 52 to 77 percent in urban areas and from 32 to 68 percent in rural areas to meet the Millennium Development Goals, the eight international anti-poverty and development goals that the United Nations member states agreed to achieve by the year 2015.

The current restrictions are a reflection of the magnitude of the problem faced by the city, said sanitation expert, Lovemore Mujuru, who is also the Deputy Director of the Institute of Water and Sanitation Development, a non-governmental organisation.

“From a sanitation perspective, it [water shedding] has potential risks that will need to be managed,” said Mujuru. “Our sewer is water borne and if there is no water, we have to resort to the pour flow method-this means residents going out of their way to find alternative sources of water as a coping mechanism. Also hygiene is greatly compromised which gives potential risks of disease outbreaks.”

Mujuru urged the city council to engage the residents to understand the basis of the tough decisions regarding water provision, given the nation-wide challenges related to water.

“We are just emerging from a very difficult period where things had literally collapsed-so even if people have a right to water but if the water is not there, you take somebody to court but it will not immediately bring water on the table –what is important in the current scenario is the concept of progressive realisation of rights-dialogue is the key so that both residents, business and BCC work together towards resolving the challenges,” he said.

However, Zimbabwe’s Minister of Water Resources Samuel Sipepa Nkomo, last week downplayed the urgency of the water situation in Bulawayo, saying Harare and other cities have faced worse. Nkomo told councillors during a meeting in the council chambers that the situation did not warrant declaring Bulawayo a state of disaster.

A short term solution to the water woes remains a pipedream with a planned pipe link to the Mtshabezi Dam, south of the City which was expected to give the some water by end of July now anticipated to be complete by Christmas.

Water Journalists Africa (WJA) is the largest network of journalists reporting on water in the African continent. It brings together some 700 journalists from 50 African countries. It was established in...

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