19 November 2013

Zimbabwe: Millions of Lives At Risk Over Govt Water Provision Failures

Photo: IRIN
Cholera breeding grounds.

The Zimbabwe government has been warned that it is putting millions of lives at risk by failing to provide access to clean water in Harare, with a leading human rights group calling the water situation a serious crisis.

Human Rights Watch on Tuesday launched a detailed report on the water situation in the capital, where access to clean water has been severely limited for years. The 60-page report, "Troubled Water: Burst Pipes, Contaminated Wells, and Open Defecation in Zimbabwe's Capital," describes how residents have little access to potable water and sanitation services, and often resort to drinking water from shallow, unprotected wells that are contaminated with sewage. Human Rights Watch said the conditions violate people's rights to water, sanitation, and health.

The report is based on research conducted in 2012 and 2013 in Harare, including 80 interviews with residents, mostly women, in eight high-density suburbs. Many residents told Human Rights Watch that the lack of household water forced them to wait for water at boreholes for up to five hours a day, and that violence frequently erupted when lines were long. People also believe these same boreholes are the safest water option available, but according got Human Rights Watch, one-third of boreholes tested showed contamination.

Some residents described raw sewage flowing into their homes and streets from burst pipes, in which children frequently played. The water shortage and the lack of functioning indoor toilets or community latrines sometimes gave them no choice but to defecate outdoors.

One mother told Human Rights Watch: "We have one toilet for the whole house and there are 21 people who live here. The flushing system doesn't work because there is no water, so we have to use buckets. When there isn't any water for flushing we just use the bush."

"Harare's water and sanitation system is broken and the government isn't fixing it," said Tiseke Kasambala, Southern Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "In many communities there is no water for drinking or bathing, there is sewage in the streets, there is diarrhea and typhoid and the threat of another cholera epidemic."

The cholera outbreak of 2008, which left thousands dead and even more desperately ill, threw into sharp relief how serious things are. Since then there has been little improvement, and according to Human Rights Watch, the conditions that allowed the epidemic to flourish still persist in Harare's high-density suburbs.

Precious Shumba, the Director of the Harare Residents Trust said that incidents of typhoid continue to be reported, following the serious outbreak of the waterborne disease earlier this year. He explained how, with the rainy season approaching, this disease and others like it will be a serious threat if the water and sanitation issues are not addressed.

Shumba also supported claims by the Human Rights Watch report which highlighted how corruption and mismanagement at the local and national levels of government further exacerbated the situation. He said there were serious problems of "bloated management structures," communications failures and the failure to 'ring fence' the funding meant for water and sanitation.

"The government should take a number of steps to improve Harare's water and sanitation crisis, including investing in low-cost sanitation and water strategies. These include providing community toilets and pit latrines, and drilling and maintaining boreholes so that residents do not have to rely on contaminated sources. A sliding fee scale for municipal water should be put in place to provide affordable water for low-income families, and no home should be disconnected from the city water supply for lack of payment," Human Rights Watch said.

Simbarashe Moyo, the chairman of the Combined Harare Residents Association (CHRA) on Tuesday said a sustainable solution was needed, but he expressed concern that the authorities did not appear committed to solving the problem. He raised concern that officials have not responded to the Human Rights Watch report, despite being given time to study it and being invited to join Tuesday's launch.

"The absence of City authorities is a clear indication of people who are in denial about the reality on the ground. What we need is a sustainable solution from the city of Harare. In the short term, people need water on a daily basis so we need short term solutions to provide people with clean, potable water every day," Moyo said.

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