The acute shortage of water in Zimbabwe’s major cities has left 3.7 million people exposed to communicable diseases such as diarrhoea and typhoid, at a time the southern African country is battling a Covid-19 outbreak.
According to the latest United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) Zimbabwe situation report, cases of typhoid and diarrhoea are on the rise in Harare and Bulawayo.
The crisis is mainly caused by consecutive droughts that have seen the two main cities' sources of water running dry.
Long running economic problems have also made it difficult for local authorities to buy water treatment chemicals. Bulawayo and Harare have had to drastically cut down on the provision of water to residents, with some areas going for several weeks without any supply
Desperate residents now resort to fetching water from unprotected wells, which exposes them to various infections.
By the time of reporting, cumulative typhoid cases were 717 and 10 deaths, and for diarrhoea there were a total of 239, 858 cases and 115 deaths across all provinces.
Bulawayo had recorded 400 diarrhoea cases since September.
“Decreasing availability of safe water, sanitation and hygiene have heightened the risk of communicable disease outbreaks for 3.7 million vulnerable people,” OCHA said. “The increased reports of water points drying up across the country continues to affect water supply in communities, with some government departments reporting shortages of borehole spares across provinces.”
According to the Zimbabwe National Water Authority (Zinwa), the national dam level average as of July was at 46.4 per cent: The average levels for that time of the year are usually 68.8 per cent.
Bulawayo, which is the hardest hit by drought, only supplies residents with water once a week after three out of its six supply dams dried up this year.
The water shortages have become perennial as the city's population growth has not been matched by investment in new sources.
“Dams that supply Bulawayo City are at just 25.6 per cent capacity and there is a deﬁcit of 17 million litres of water per day for the city’s residents,” OCHA said. “These shortages also affect hydropower generation, which in turn affects urban water supply and treatment and cause water rationing, which impacts people’s ability to maintain good hygiene practices."
Zimbabwe's economic reversal has been raging for nearly two decades, characterised by an acute shortage of foreign currency.
The lack of foreign direct investment has led to infrastructure decay, which has hit urban areas hard.
Populations in major cities continue to grow, but there is little investment in supporting infrastructure such as that for water reticulation.
The decay of water and sewer reticulation infrastructure was blamed for the worst cholera outbreak in the country’s history, which killed more than 4,000 people between 2008 and 2009.
The Zimbabwe Peace Project said besides the outbreaks of communicable diseases, the water crisis had precipitated social problems such as the abuse of women.
"Apart from exposing people to Covid-19, the water problems have resulted in some having to queue for as long as five hours just to get a bucket of water," it said.
"Some young girls and women, who wake up as early as 2am to queue for water have reported sexual and other forms of harassment.
"Authorities have not invested enough in the maintenance of existing water reticulation infrastructure to harvest, pump and distribute clean, safe and potable water to all," ZPP said.
Activists say the water shortages come at a time when Zimbabwe needs to be ensuring hygiene in urban areas as one of the ways to control Covid-19.
As of November 10, Zimbabwe had 8, 610 Covid-19 cases and 255 deaths.
After a slow-down in the number of new infections in the past few months, the cases have started going up again with authorities warning of a second Covid-19 wave.
The ZPP, which carried out a recent study of the water supply situation in the country’s urban areas, described the crisis as a threat to human life.
"The majority of Zimbabwean towns and cities continue to experience diarrhoea epidemics especially in children under the age of five, and these epidemics are directly linked to collapse or decline in service delivery in such areas as water supply," ZPP said.
"This crisis has affected urban cities the most as these depend mostly on piped water for household consumption, industrial utilisation, sewage disposal and electricity generation in Lake Kariba."