Residents in Gwanda have been without water for at least two weeks after cyanide, which can kill instantly if swallowed, was found in the town's river system.
Water Minister Sam Sipepa Nkomo confirmed that some rivers that supply water to the dam in Gwanda were found with traces of cyanide. He said the deadly chemical compound, which is used in the mining of gold, is being dumped by gold-panners in the area, who have not been educated on how to treat waste.
He told SW Radio Africa: "I am not sure it was two weeks. I am sure it was just a matter of days. There are some pockets of water that can be used to supply Gwanda, it may not be sufficient, but I don't believe it's actually correct that they have not had water for two weeks."
But Gwanda Mayor Lionel DeNecker disagreed, saying there is a water crisis in his town with some suburbs having no water for two to three weeks. He accused the Zimbabwe National Water Authority of withholding information from the public.
"In a situation like this, ZINWA has to come forth with information so that the community would know as to what they are drinking. But when they withhold that information and just make announcements it puts the lives of the people of Gwanda at risk."
The mayor said the water authority needs to start caring about the health of the residents so that all stakeholders can take appropriate action.
Nkomo insisted the water is tested before it enters the treatment plant making it "difficult for the contaminated water to pass through to people, because cyanide can kill a human being."
He added: "We would rather have people without water than allowing water with cyanide to go through."
The mayor said the minister's comments show the problem with a centralized system of government, where he is in Harare and does not always know what is happening in Gwanda except the 'misinformation' that he receives from ZINWA.
DeNecker revealed that it was difficult to track how many people had drunk the contaminated water as there are many people in Gwanda who access the water directly from the river.
We were not able to reach ZINWA authorities for comment, but the water authority's Umzingwane Catchment manager, Engineer Tommy Rosen, is quoted in the state controlled Herald newspaper saying: "Gwanda draws its water from Blanket Dam but contamination has been found at Pickup Weir. For now it is difficult to tell who is responsible for the contamination as it has not been clearly proven."
However, the water minister said the problem is being compounded by small scale gold miners who need to be educated about the dangers of using cyanide, especially in rivers that supply water to the population.
The mayor of Gwanda also said the problem is with ZINWA, which does not want to leave the running of the water treatment plant in the hands of the local authority, as is happening in many other towns.
"It is difficult for council to protect residents from the kind of water that we get from ZINWA." DeNecker added: "ZINWA should not be purifying water on behalf of council because ultimately if residents get sick they don't go to ZINWA they come to council."