Five years after a cholera outbreak killed more than 4 000 people in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, Human Rights Watch says the city is at significant risk of another outbreak. Meanwhile, officials deny the severity of the sanitation situation.
According to the international organisation’s report, Troubled Water: Burst Pipes, Contaminated Wells, and Open Defecation in Zimbabwe’s Capital, released this week, Harare has a burgeoning population using outdated infrastructure. The city still uses the same pipes that it did in the 1980s when its population was 600 000. Now, it tops four million.
It investigated the availability of potable water and sanitation in Harare between September 2012 and October 2013, carrying out 80 interviews with residents.
Residents of Harare and surrounding areas such as Chitungwiza, Norton and Ruwa require about 1 200 megalitres of water, of which the Harare City Council produces about half. A significant amount of treated water is also lost to leakages.
The Human Rights Watch report said the number of people falling ill from contaminated water was startling. In the past year, more than 3 000 cases of typhoid were reported in the city, but the number of cases could be higher as many cases went unreported.
A laboratory analysis carried out by the Standards Association of Zimbabwe, the results of which were made public last month, confirmed the presence of high levels of harmful coliform bacteria in the tap water.
“The water we get from the tap is not good. Sometimes it smells like fish, sometimes it smells like raw sewage. But we have no choice. We have to drink it anyway,” a Dzivarasekwa resident identified as Stella told the organisation.
Although the Harare City Council recently secured a $144-million loan from China for the rehabilitation and expansion of its water treatment plants, a city engineer who spoke to the Mail & Guardian on condition of anonymity said the money would be insufficient to normalise the capital’s water and sewer reticulation system.
He said the local authority and surrounding towns were also pumping raw sewage into the city’s supply dams, making the water more difficult to purify.
Residents, meanwhile, are not always willing to pay their bills. The government recently directed all local authorities to write off all the debts owed to them, a move the opposition party said was an election gimmick to ensure urban support for Zanu-PF. Residents are now hoping for another round of government benevolence.
Harare and Bulawayo are particularly vulnerable to cholera outbreaks because they are located on watershed divides. Water draining out of the city flows into the sources of drinking water.
A Mufakose township father of two, identified as James in the report, summed it up: “We usually get 20 litres of water from the borehole. I [make] it last the four of us for several days … because can you imagine waiting in that line again? When there is no water, going to the borehole is really stressful, waiting in lines for hours and all the violence.”