Zimbabwe: Impending Water Cuts Spark Fears of Disease Outbreaks

00221112-f8dbf9942ce0f2b75d9e84a688607a4d-arc614x376-w614-us1Photograph: All Africa

Eight 20 litre plastic containers stacked one on top of the other eat up important space in Andrew Dhamiyano’s rented one-room apartment in Mabelreign, Harare. Filled with water, the containers are the 33-year old’s emergency plan in times of unannounced water cuts by the Harare City Council, for which Mabelreign is notorious.

Mr Dhamiyano has lived with frequent water outages for a long time — you could say it’s now in his blood — but is worried city authorities are about to turn an already bad situation worse.

“It’s not good (that council disconnect residents),” complained the father of a 7-month old daughter, who works as a night-shift packer at a local company. Mr Dhamiyano’s bills are paid up, but thousands of his fellow residents in arrears could soon find their taps running dry. Harare is largely expected to crackdown on delinquent residents and businesses whose water bills are past due. This follows a recent High Court ruling allowing the city to turn off water to those in arrears without the need of the court’s blessings. The city is owed more than $500 million in unpaid bills by its customers, it says. Between May and June, Harare cut supplies to nearly 5 000 homes in 14 low-income suburbs. Some companies were turned off, too. The disconnections stopped after the High Court found them illegal. Most bills were in dispute, it said, as ratepayers alleged over-charging.

Water cuts only way

Harare says cutting off water is the only way to get people to pay their bills. But experts are unimpressed, criticising the city for cutting supplies to people already living in poverty. They say over-fed council authorities are arrogant and abusing their power. “The majority of top officials in the city of Harare do not appreciate what it is to be without money, jobs and to be financially vulnerable,” said Precious Shumba, director Harare Residents Trust (HRT), by text message. Residents shouldn’t get used to getting services for free, says Mr Shumba, but they should pay only for those services rendered — pure supplies, so to speak. Harare hasn’t been doing that, he alleges, and this explains the resistance from residents. “The HRT has consistently urged Harare residents to religiously pay $10 every month for their property tax and fixed services like sewerage and water, and only pay for rates for services actually provided.,” Mr Shumba told The Herald Business.

“The significance of municipal water services has been severely crippled given the fact that the water delivered is discredited in the experience of residents.

“The water has visible impurities, produces an odour and is erratically supplied.”

Water scarcity is predicted to worsen across southern Africa, with a 2012 World Bank report predicting that dam and lakes levels will fall by up to 50 percent by 2080 due to the effects of climate change. In Harare, a combination of drought, ageing infrastructure, pollution and a ballooning population makes it almost impossible for the city to adapt to a water crisis it has suffered for 15 years. A 2014 survey by the Government and international aid agencies showed the number of Harare households with access to clean drinking water and sanitation had plummeted to just below 40 percent, from 95 percent in 2009 — the fastest decline among Zimbabwe’s 10 provinces.

Disease fears

The greatest fear now is not whether Harare can cut off the poor — it has done that before — but when the next outbreak of water-related disease will occur. Water shortage and poor sanitation are a ground for spread of diseases such as cholera, typhoid, and others. In January, the city reported dozens of cases of typhoid fever, a bacterial infection that causes fever, headaches and constipation or diarrhoea. It didn’t need unpaid water bills to turn off anyone. Lake Chivero, the city’s main reservoir, almost dried up due to drought, forcing household water supply to drop 18 percent to 450 million megalitres per day, just over half of what is actually needed per day. But it is the lake’s excessive pollution that turns heads — much of it of Harare’s own making. The city pumps millions of litres of raw sewage into Chivero non-stop, with industrial chemical waste, fertiliser and pesticides run-off from urban farming making up the remainder. At the drought’s peak, Harare needed as much as $4 million on chemicals and power each month to purify water– about $800 000 more than it would cost for less polluted water, Harare spokesperson Michael Chideme indicated in a previous interview. Now, the impending cuts will no doubt invoke the horror of 2008, where 4 000 people died in Zimbabwe’s worst cholera outbreak ever, leaving 100 000 affected.

Go the Zesa way

Dhamiyano believes the city is going about collecting its debt the wrong way. “Council and residents should negotiate payment, come up with a plan like what Zesa is doing on electricity. Water is life, we cannot live without it,” he suggested. Power utility, Zesa Holdings has installed thousands of pre-paid electricity meters in households. A certain portion of money is deducted with every purchase of power for those in arrears. This helped Zesa Holdings recover some of its debts without disconnecting anyone. This programme does not exist in water, and even if it did, Harare Residents Trust’s Shumba doubt it will work.

“Comparing water and electricity is not objective,” he argues. “Water has no substitute or alternative like electricity which can be sufficiently substituted by use of gas, candles, solar, firewood, charcoal, generators among other energy alternatives.” So, Harare can go ahead and cut water to customers? May be. “The boreholes sunk in the communities by humanitarian agencies and churches have largely taken care of residents ‘needs for consumption water,” says Mr Shumba.

“Residents are beginning to take control of the boreholes and maintain them when they are broken down.

“Disconnections of water services will not likely influence revenue inflows because residents have become used to living without decent and consistent municipal services.”

But not everyone agrees. “While access to clean and safe water is a basic human right, residents also need to exercise some level of responsibility — paying for usage. “We have a Shona adage ‘hapana chemahara, chemahara mushana,’ which loosely translates to nothing is for free. Even to access sunshine, you have go where there is access to it,” said a municipal analyst who cannot be named for professional reasons. God is faithful.

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