Harare — The thick stench of human waste pervades the block of the eight unfinished flats in the Zimbabwean capital, Harare. The complex is dotted with human faeces - some of it parcelled in plastic bags, some not.
Hordes of people, mainly youths, squatted in the yet-to-be- completed national housing ministry flats in Dzivaresekwa Extension Phase 1, more than four years ago, before the installation of water and sanitation systems.
The stench is compounded by mounds of uncollected and decaying rubbish. Small boys and girls squat behind the flats answering the call of nature, as the elderly seek relief and privacy from behind the cover of dwarf bushes.
"We have no choice here, and our situation has been like this for years now. We use bush toilets to relieve ourselves during the day as we have no toilets," said Bothwell Jari, one of the residents.
"At night, we can't move into the bush, and most of us opt to use plastic bags to relieve ourselves, which we just throw out through the windows," said Marian Mangirazi, a single mother at the flats.
A cholera epidemic in August 2008, which lasted for a year before it was officially declared over, killed more than 4,000 people and infected nearly 100,000 others. Dzivaresekwa was also affected by the epidemic.
In the last few months, thousands of cases of the waterborne disease typhoid were reported in Zimbabwe. Typhoid is often a precursor to cholera. The UN World Health Organization (WHO) says typhoid usually occurs where water supplies are contaminated by faecal matter.
With no access to potable water, the residents either collect water from shallow unprotected wells after the rains or ask for it from residents of the neighbouring Dzivaresekwa township.
Miriam Vurayai, in her mid-70s, told IRIN, "We have to more often beg for water from residents in DZ Extension main, who are now apparently tired with us, with most of them demanding that we should now share payment of water bills."
"I'm old, as you can see, and I have orphaned grandchildren to look after in these dirty conditions you have witnessed," she said.
Maxwell Chitete, the community's leader, told IRIN, "We are here because some of us became tired of empty promises from politicians who always came to us every election time, promising us decent housing during the time we lived in shacks.
"These flats were not complete when we occupied them. We said, look guys, we have stayed for too long banking on promises from our local political leaders, enduring filthy living conditions in shacks, we have to move into the government flats before they are given to undeserving people," he said.
David Munyoro, permanent secretary for the National Housing and Social Amenities Ministry, said government housing programmes stopped in 2002 because of the collapsing economy. "There has been little construction by government since 2002. The adoption of the multiple currency regime system saw things improving a bit, and in 2012 we managed to build the Willowvale Flats," he said.
In 2005, the crisis was exacerbated after Operation Murambatsvina, when "illegal" structures were demolished by soldiers and police on the orders of the then-ruling ZANU-PF government, leaving hundreds of thousands of people homeless.
Housing minister Giles Mutsekwa said government was planning to construct modern flats in the country's main cities to alleviate the housing shortages.
"We are rolling out a scheme to build flats in the country's biggest cities to alleviate accommodations challenges. We are targeting Harare, Mutare, Bulawayo and Gweru," he said, adding that the scheme was set to begin later this year.
Water Resources and Development Minister Samuel Sipepa Nkomo pledged that his ministry would drill more boreholes in areas experiencing any water crisis.
But Wisdom Mbele, spokesperson of the illegally occupied flats, said they were tired of promises from politicians.
"Every election time, we are promised tap water and water system toilets, just to name a few, but none of the promises materialized. We are tired of void promises," he said. Parliamentary and presidential elections are scheduled for 2013, although not dates have been scheduled.
Residents fear that if the government becomes involved now, they could be evicted.
"We came here before the unity government [in 2009], and if any of us will make the mistake of letting the current government know that we are here, we are doomed," said resident Dickson Jembere.
Mbele said Harare's municipal authorities still regarded them as squatters.
Harare City Council's spokesperson Lesley Gwindi said, "We don't know if there are such people in Dzivaresekwa Extension. If they are truly residing there and have erected shacks at the place, we regard them as illegal settlers in the area."
Recently, the Zimbabwe affiliate of Slum Dwellers International hosted a workshop, drawing participants from Zambia, Malawi, Namibia and South Africa. The issue of using alternative water and sanitation facilities, in the form of eco-san toilets and boreholes, before the installation of reticulated infrastructure featured prominently.
This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.