By Wallace Mawire
Human Rights Watch has reported that residents of Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, face a potable water crisis three years after a deadly cholera outbreak.
The organization says that Zimbabwe’s central government and the Harare City Council should urgently act to ensure clean water for millions of people affected.
It is reported that the water situation in Harare is largely the same as in 2008, when Zimbabwe experienced the most devastating cholera outbreak in Africa in 15 years. The outbreak killed 42 00 people and infected at least 100,000. Human Rights Watch found that the city’s perennial water crisis, which is linked to the cholera outbreak, is the result of the city’s obsolete water infrastructure, a ballooning population, severe droughts, and pervasive government corruption and mismanagement. Poor governance and disputes between the central government and the Harare City Council have hindered efforts to address the problems.
“Harare’s long unresolved water crisis is a ticking time bomb of magnified health risks that forces residents to seek alternative, often unsafe water sources,” said Dewa Mavhinga, Southern Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Zimbabwean authorities at the national and local levels should work together to promptly and permanently end Harare’s dangerous water problems.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed 85 people in October 2019 and July and August 2021 water in five densely populated, or high-density, areas (Budiriro, Glenview, Highfields, Mabvuku, and Mbare) who had no access to safe drinking water: in Harare, the peri-urban informal settlement of Epworth near Harare, and the surrounding towns of Chitungwiza, Norton, and Ruwa. Human Rights Watch also interviewed 11 central government and municipal officials, public health experts, legal experts, city council employees, and staff of nongovernmental organizations and United Nations agencies in Zimbabwe. Human Rights Watch also reviewed reports from the government, UN, nongovernmental groups, and the media on water issues in Harare.
The infrastructure for piped water in Harare was developed in the 1950s, before Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, and designed for a population of 300,000 people. Currently, Harare’s greater metropolitan area has about 4.5 million people, more than half of whom have no access to clean water and are at risk of water-borne diseases such as cholera and typhoid.
The water crisis in Harare has affected people’s rights to water and sanitation as well as other related rights, including the rights to life, food, and health. “Sometimes we get city council water in the taps,” a woman from the high-density suburb of Mabvuku told Human Rights Watch. “It is not clean. We cannot drink it and, because it smells badly, we cannot use it to cook.”
Common water sources, namely shallow wells, taps, and many boreholes – deep, narrow wells – are often contaminated, Human Rights Watch said. However, despite the known risk of contaminated water, there is no specific official information on which water sources are safe, leaving residents to take their chances.
“The water that comes out from the taps is neither clean nor safe to drink, so we have to depend on borehole water, which we feel is better,” said a 46-year-old woman from Harare’s Glenview suburb. “But we know that even borehole water is not safe for drinking.”
More affluent families in Harare’s low-density suburbs drill safe boreholes and purchase bottled water, options not available to the vast majority of the population. The humanitarian organization Medecins Sana Frontieres (MSF, or Doctors Without Borders) in Zimbabwe has developed a method of protecting new boreholes from contamination with sanitary seals, but local governments have not adopted this solution, which costs several thousand US dollars per borehole.
Under section 77 of Zimbabwe’s 2013 constitution “every person has the right to safe, clean, and potable water.” The government is obligated to take reasonable legislative and other measures, within the limits of available resources, to achieve the progressive realization of the right to water. Zimbabwe is also a party to African regional and international human rights treaties that recognize the right to water and sanitation.
The government at the national and local levels should urgently act to ensure alternative sources of safe drinking water, such as safe boreholes and protected wells, for the entire population, Human Rights Watch said.
“Zimbabwean authorities should not wait for the next cholera outbreak to provide access to safe drinking water for everyone,” Mavhinga said. “The government should invest in low-cost water equipment and distribution systems to uphold the right of millions of Zimbabweans to potable water.”
It is reported that the millions of residents of Harare and the surrounding areas have been hard hit by the region’s water crisis. In Mbare, a high-density suburb of Harare which has the country’s biggest and busiest bus terminus and a vegetable market visited by thousands of people daily, water and sanitation facilities are insufficient, residents said.
Blocks of “bachelor flats” in Mbare, built and designed for one-person occupancy during colonial times, now house large families, severely straining the limited water resources. Because of the lack of water, the flush toilets are severely inadequate, unsanitary, and in many cases as a result are nonfunctional. Both Harare and Chitungwiza have numerous open markets in which thousands of people set up stalls to sell meat, vegetables, fruit, and livestock, but the markets lack adequate water and sanitation facilities. For instance, at the Kamunhu Shopping Centre, the Harare City Council established about 2,000 market stalls for traders, but it did not provide running water.
Residents who at times get tap water described the water’s quality as poor. A 53-year-old woman from the Mabvuku high-density suburb said that: “Now we get water in our taps twice a week in the evenings, but we cannot drink that water, we only use it for washing. For drinking and cooking water, we [go to] boreholes where we wait sometimes four hours to get it.”
Those who have no access to tap water rely on boreholes for all their water. A 32-year-old mother of two in the Highfields high-density suburb said that her tap water was shut off after she failed to pay Zim $6,000 (US$70) in water bills over six months. Consequently, she depends on the potentially dangerous water from the borehole. “Many people queue to get water from the borehole, but we do not know if the water is safe to drink,” she said.
The boreholes are also not always reliable or accessible. A 56-year-old mother of three in the Budiriro high-density suburb said:
In 2019, we had a borehole that was working here in Budiriro 5. We would spend over six hours waiting for water, but it was better we had a borehole nearby. The borehole broke down and has not been working for the last five months. We must now walk a long distance to Mufakose, another residency area, sometimes at night, to fetch water from boreholes there.
The Chitungwiza municipality depends on treated water supplied by the Harare City Council. The water supply in Harare directly affects the Chitungwiza municipality, which gets rationed water as a result. Epworth, an informal settlement adjacent to Harare, has no water infrastructure for its 120,000-plus residents. Instead, tens of thousands of Epworth residents have depended on a dam with stagnant, unsafe water for more than three decades, even though the water is unfit for human consumption. A 21-year-old woman who has lived her entire life in Epworth without tap water said:
I know that the dam water is not safe to drink, sometimes we fall sick after drinking the water, but I have no choice. I need the water to survive, and I have nowhere else to get water.
In Harare’s low-density suburbs in the north and east of the city, more affluent families have devised alternatives, including drilling safe boreholes and using bottled water, which costs Zim $86 (US$1) for a one-liter bottle. That is unaffordable for the vast majority of Zimbabweans, many of whom live well under the poverty line.
Medecins Sans Frontieres in Zimbabwe, which since 2015 has worked to bring safe, clean water to vulnerable communities, in 2017 introduced new drilling and cementation techniques, placing sanitary seals to protect newly drilled boreholes from contamination. MSF reported that tested water from these boreholes showed “‘zero’ bacteriological and chemical contamination.”
MSF has since advocated drilling these safe boreholes to prevent contamination, including through the dissemination of a toolkit on good practices in water, sanitation, and hygiene that explains how to protect borehole water from contamination. However, the average cost is very high, ranging from US$5,400 to $6,000 per borehole, and Harare and surrounding towns have not adopted the cementation technology.
it is reported that several factors have contributed to Harare’s severe water problems, including economic decay; perennial droughts affecting Lake Chivero, which is dammed to supply Harare with water; the lack of maintenance of the old water infrastructure; the inability to procure the necessary chemicals to treat water sources; political struggles between the central government under the ruling party and the opposition-controlled city council; and corruption.
Harare’s water supply comes from Lake Chivero dam water, which the city’s mayor, Jacob Mafume, says is so heavily contaminated with raw sewage that it requires many different chemicals to purify. Harare City Council’s water department uses 12 chemicals, including chlorine gas, aluminum sulfate, sulfuric acid, sodium silicate, activated carbon, and hydrated lime, to treat and purify water from the Lake Chivero dam. Most of these chemicals are imported and very expensive, creating a huge challenge for a country facing severe foreign currency shortages..
Ian Makone, a Harare city councilor, blamed leakages in the old, dilapidated, and inadequate water distribution network for the water crisis. “More than 40 percent of pumped treated water is not delivered due to leakages,” Makone said. There are cracks in both the water and sewage pipes because of the city’s failure to replace decades-old pipes several years ago, causing flowing tap water to be mixed with sewage in several places across Harare.
Zimbabwe’s government has an obligation under international human rights law to ensure that the right to water is met, regardless of whether the policies are carried out by the national government or delegated to local authorities. Political tensions between the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party, which controls the central government, and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change Alliance (MDCA), which controls the Harare municipal government, has adversely affected water service delivery in the region.
The central government has not fulfilled constitutional provisions that allow for the devolution of power from the central government to the municipal level. Zimbabwe’s Parliament has not enacted legislation to establish appropriate systems and procedures to facilitate coordination between the central government and local authorities. Thus, while the Harare City Council has the responsibility to supply clean water to residents, the central government, through the Ministry of Local Government, wields the decision-making power. At the same time, the central government is responsible for constructing dams to provide water for cities, but no new dams have been constructed for Harare and Chitungwiza despite the existence of such plans for decades.
Harare’s Mayor Mfume told Human Rights Watch that inadequate laws authorizing the local government to provide water have hampered the city council’s efforts to address the water crisis and improve service delivery for the metropolitan area. “Currently, we are unable to operate effectively because our hands are tied by the Ministry of Local Government and the centralization that inhibits the operations of municipalities,” he said. “The mayors have no real powers.”
The MDC Alliance president, Nelson Chamisa said:
The [ZANU-PF controlled] Ministry of Local Government still enjoys superpowers. It appoints all town clerks, CEOs, and other officials. This means they continue to sabotage our efforts for change. The government still approves and limits our budgets. We are not able to determine rates, leaving us unable to make enough money to provide adequate services.
The ZANU-PF party minister for the Harare metropolitan province, Oliver Chidawu, said the central government acknowledged the challenges of decentralization and the water crisis, and is in discussions about long-term plans, including the construction of new dams, but said the major challenge is funding. He said the government needs support from international donors to be able to have a comprehensive response to the water crisis.
Existing legislation makes it complicated and difficult for municipal authorities to address problems like access to clean water, the former mayor of Harare, Herbert Gomba, said. For instance, under the Joint Ventures Act, before the city can engage a private company for services, it must first send a resolution to the national Ministry of Local Government, which must then send a resolution to the Office of the President and Cabinet for approval. The Urban Councils Act prohibits cities from borrowing money or entering into contracts without Ministry of Local Government authorization. In addition, the Procurement Act removed procurement powers from local authorities and put the powers in the Office of the President and Cabinet.
The local and central governments have continued to blame each other without resolving Harare’s water crisis.
Public sector corruption and mismanagement at the local and central government levels have exacerbated the government’s neglect of water infrastructure over the last two decades, compromising access to safe, clean water. Transparency International’s 2020 Corruption Perception Index found that corruption is extremely high in Zimbabwe, ranking it 157 out of 179 countries. Corruption is rife in the central government as well as within the Harare City Council and Chitungwiza municipality, negatively affecting service delivery.
In July 2020 the anticorruption unit in President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s office arrested the then-mayor of Harare, Herbert Gomba, and other top city council officials, on allegations of corruption and abuse of office regarding approval irregularities in the sale of land and alteration of plans. Gomba’s case is still in the courts. Four months later, Mafume, who replaced Gomba as mayor, was also arrested on allegations of corruption, prompting the opposition Movement for Democratic Change to assert that the Zimbabwean government was using its law enforcement agents to target council officials from the MDCA. Mafume’s case is also still before the courts.
Zimbabwe’s 2013 constitution protects the right to water. Section 77 of the constitution states that every person has the right to “safe, clean, and potable water.” Under the constitution, the state “must take reasonable legislative and other measures, within the limits of the resources available to it, to achieve the progressive realization of this right.”
The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which Zimbabwe has ratified, does not expressly include the right to water. However, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights has interpreted the right to water as being implied by various rights codified in the African Charter, including the right to “a general satisfactory environment” favorable to peoples’ development, which is unattainable without access to water and sanitation. The African Commission in 2020 published Guidelines on the Right to Water in Africa, which it said was grounded in regional treaties’ protection of economic, social, and cultural development; health; access to natural resources; the environment; and food
In 2010 121 countries, including Zimbabwe, voted in the UN General Assembly to recognize a freestanding right to water. In 2011 the UN Human Rights Council endorsed the right to safe drinking water and to sanitation as basic rights.
The General Assembly adopted a resolution in 2015 that states that the right to water entitles everyone, without discrimination, “to have access to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible, and affordable water for personal and domestic use.”
The UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights has interpreted international law on the right to water, as well as state obligations, in its General Comment No.15. The state’s minimum core obligations include ensuring people’s access to sufficient, safe water and physical access to water facilities or services that are a reasonable distance away.
Zimbabwe has ratified international human rights treaties that contain – explicitly or implicitly – provisions on the right to water, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Recommendations made to the Zimbabwe Central Government include implementing legal and other reforms to ensure the full promotion, protection, and enjoyment of the right to water enshrined in section 77 of Zimbabwe’s 2013 constitution and African regional and international human rights law, ensuring residents’ access to potable water either directly through central government authority or by adequately empowering local governments, working with city councils to develop and implement a system, such as sliding scale fees, to ensure the delivery of affordable and safe piped water to low-income families, working with local authorities to ensure that all public boreholes are regularly tested for water quality and that these results are disseminated to residents, providing regular, up-to-date information to residents on the water quality of both taps and boreholes in their areas so they understand the health risks and benefits of available water sources, upgrading the water infrastructure in Harare and surrounding areas, taking steps to reduce corruption, including by developing and enforcing transparency and accountability measures regarding the allocation of finances and expenditures.
Recommendations made to the Harare City Council include ensuring residents’ access to potable water either directly through central government authority or by adequately empowering local governments, developing and implement a system, such as sliding scale fees, to ensure the delivery of affordable and safe piped water to low-income families, upgrading the water infrastructure in Harare, providing regular, up-to-date information to residents on the water quality of both taps and boreholes in their areas so they understand the health risks and benefits of available water sources, ensuring that all public boreholes are regularly tested for water quality and that these results are disseminated to residents and taking steps to reduce corruption, including by developing and enforcing transparency and accountability measures regarding the allocation of finances and expenditures.