Unsafe Water in Zimbabwe Undermines Covid-19 Fight
Fri, September 30, 2022

Unsafe Water in Zimbabwe Undermines Covid-19 Fight


Jerrycans and buckets on hand, Zimbabweans queue at a borehole to collect water./ Photo by Photographer RM via Shutterstock


Jerrycans and buckets on hand, Zimbabweans queue at a borehole to collect water. While much of Zimbabwe has already suffered a water crisis, things are now different as the country also fights against the Covid-19 pandemic.


The long queue to collect water

The southern African country has already enforced a 21-day lockdown in its effort to stop the spread of the deadly Covid-19. This means that people should follow social distancing rules, stay indoors, and also wash their hands regularly. But water scarcity makes it difficult to follow these social distancing measures.

Sixteen-year-old Maxel Chikov was interviewed by daily New Zimbabwe. The teen said that although they heard about social distancing, people are already queued up so they just hope that nobody is positive of Covid-19. Another teen in the queue is Winnet Mgaramomb. She said that she did not go to school due to virus restrictions. Although they heard about the pandemic, they also need water to be used at home.

“Corona or no corona, we shall come to get water,” Mgaramombe said while carrying a bucket. People standing in line to collect water is a common sigh in Harare, the country’s capital. City authorities have been struggling to supply water to the capital with about 4.5 million residents. The queue is longer in Mbare, a high-density suburb in Harare.



Unsafe drinking water in Zimbabwe

Covid-19 has brought the capital’s long water woes in the spotlight. Some parts of Harare exist for almost two decades with no running water. There are only drilled boreholes and enterprises are earning money by delivering or vending water in mobile tankers to people who can afford it. For the majority of the population, the public boreholes are their only option.

There are rare days when water would trickle out of taps but is sometimes smelly so people doubt its safety. Water purification and wastewater treatment solutions provider Nanotech Water Solutions conducted a study last year about water in South Africa. They found that water in Harare contains toxins that can cause liver disease and can affect people’s central nervous system.

The majority of people in the capital believe that underground water from boreholes is safe to drink. However, a cholera outbreak occurred in 2018 and it killed about 50 people. When they traced the source of cholera, it was a borehole in the Kuwadzana residential suburb. What contaminated the water was an underground sewer pipe.

Our World in Data, a scientific online publication that focuses on large global problems, shared that the age-standardized death rate in Zimbabwe attributed to an unsafe water source measured per 100,000 individuals in 1990 stood at 36.52. It reached a 58.31 death rate in 2008 and 66.39 in 2009. As of 2016, the death rate in the country attributed to an unsafe water source was at 37.55.



Number of people with access to basic drinking water

There are 8.80 million people with access to at least basic drinking water in 2000 and it grew to 8.94 million in 2002. The number gradually increased to 8.97 million (2003), 8.99 million (2004), 9.10 million (2006), 9.17 million (2007), 9.38 million (2009), 9.51 million (2010), 9.83 million (2012), 10.19 million (2014), and 10.39 million (2015).


Inadequate water purifying plants

In the 2008 cholera outbreak, nearly 4,000 people died and at least 100,000 Zimbabweans fell ill. The Harare City Council said they lacked money to purify water. Although there are water purifying plants that were developed during the British colonial rule, these plants are inadequate to supply the burgeoning population in the city. There are also water distribution pipes that existed in the last 50 years but half of the purified water is also lost due to burst pipes. The government has not yet commented on how they are going to provide water to the population, especially those with taps that have remained dry for years or those with irregular water supply.

Human Rights Watch’s southern Africa director Dewa Mavhinga said that imposing social distancing measures is “critically important” in the country to prevent the spread of coronavirus but people also need access to clean water for hygiene, handwashing, and drinking.

The pandemic has made an already dangerous water crisis more urgent in Zimbabwe, added Mavhinga. Failure to provide citizens sufficient water would undermine the country’s efforts to protect the lives of its citizens against Covid-19.

Housewife Epiphania Moyo queues in the morning and is aware of the need for better hygiene but they would sometimes use the water for other domestic uses. She also considers hand sanitizers a luxury they cannot afford. “That’s for the rich,” she said, adding that it is not for them who live in the ghetto.



The BBC previously featured the story of 18-year-old Evidence Kanyombo, who spends his days searching for water for his siblings and mother in the Zimbabwe capital. While unemployed, he says that searching for water has almost become his full-time job. Although they have water pipes at home, there had been no water for a while and the pipes have already rusted. “I don’t ever remember taking a shower,” he said.

Kanyombo added that it is possible to only use two liters of water to take a bath. That means that 20-liter buckets of water can already last for three days, depending on how one can limit themselves in using it. Almost every home in Harare has several plastic buckets, even in affluent houses.

The suburb of Mabvuku is one of the driest areas of Harare. A long line of water containers and buckets can also be seen at the boreholes. There have been reports of physical fights before collecting water. One witness shared that police officers sometimes had to step in to restore order. Some people also see opportunity in adversity by selling water to those who don’t want to spend long hours manually pumping water.

In 2018, UNICEF helped increase access to water in Zimbabwe by drilling new boreholes. It also helped rehabilitate a defunct piped water schemes in rural districts.

There are links between sanitation and the transmission of diseases. This is why in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, people should protect each other. Ways to address the water crisis in Zimbabwe should be introduced beyond just repairing village boreholes.