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This article participates on the following special index pages:

  • Zimbabwe's Elections 2013 - Index of Articles


  • Zimbabwe Briefing - Issue 117
    Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition (SA Regional Office)
    September 25, 2013

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    Widespread water shortages – What caused Zimbabwe’s empty bucket?

    “Water gushed over parched land fractures are slowly filled left by drought,” -“Water” by Wilma Neels

    Empty basket case or empty water bucket

    In the years following Zimbabwe’s contentious land reform program, spearheaded more through disorderly and violent invasions than actual planning, the country began experiencing challenges relating to acute food shortages and importing maize from the most unlikely neighbours in Southern Africa. Civil Rights Nobel Peace Prize Laureate from the neighbouring South Africa Arch-bishop Desmond Tutu then made a witty remark regarding the food insecurity in Zimbabwe when he stated that the Robert Mugabe-led country had become “the basket case” instead of the breadbasket of Southern Africa it had once been.

    Recent reports emanating from various parts of the country, indicate that the country is facing a serious shortage of water and slowly turning into an “empty bucket” to paraphrase the sentiments of Tutu. In simple terms, Zimbabwe is staring at an empty bucket without sufficient water – the precious liquid that is arguably the lifeblood of modern day civilization.

    Water as a constitutional right and a necessity

    The new Constitution of Zimbabwe states in Chapter 4, Section 77 that: “Every person has the right to- safe, clean and portable water…” Water in Zimbabwe is a constitutional right. On September 24, 2010, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a binding resolution recognizing that the human right to water and sanitation are a part of the right to an adequate standard of living. The resolution is enforceable when it is part of the Constitution like in Zimbabwe.

    We need water to bath, we need water to drink (well, 70% of our bodies is made up of that clear liquid), we need water to push our sewer systems to their intended destinations; we need water to wash our clothes, we need water in the industries and cars as a coolant, and so forth and so on. The point is that we cannot do without water. It neither rains nor pours in Zimbabwe

    However, one should admit that perhaps Zimbabwe has never been the water bucket of the region. Water neither frequently rains from our skies especially in dry parts of the country, nor pours from the taps in Zimbabwe. This is not to say that the current water woes faced by almost all of Zimbabwe’s urban councils and their residents are normal, and nothing could have been done about it because the truth is that the government has lacked the will to act on this subject of water pro-vision for the greater part of our post-colonial decades.

    Rural to urban migration

    There has been a recognizable failure by the successive Zanu-PF-led governments to invest in water, this vital component of urban life and civilization as the population and the demand for water steadily rose, putting a strain on the water systems and outpacing their capacities. Part of the challenges just like in terms of housing and sewer reticulation has been caused by the reality of surges in urban populations due to rural-urban migration, stemming from the lack of development in the rural areas of Zimbabwe. This has been a result of unequal development and neglect of the rural populace.

    Water woes in rural areas

    Surprisingly, the trend of water shortages equally plagues rural communities as they usually do not have access to clean water, if at all. In some southern parts of the country, stretching to the west, such as the Masvingo and Bulawayo provinces cases of perpetual shortages of water underscore the gravity and widespread nature of the water crisis in Zimbabwe. As the crisis goes unabated, people in areas like Chivi resort to desperate measures and drink water from the rivers where they burrow unsafe wells in the dry rivers’ sands to quench their thirst. Fortuitously, the United Nations International Children’s Education Fund (UNICEF) has lately been drilling boreholes to remedy the situation.

    Again, it is UNICEF which intervened with the drilling of boreholes in the city centres after the Cholera outbreak of 2008. But the underground boreholes in some areas have been blamed for the emergence of diseases such as typhoid, because of the unsafe underground urban water sources, which could be a sign that there is no substitute for piped water in the urban areas.

    Lack of government investment

    What stands out clearly is the Zimbabwean government’s lack of adequate initiatives since independence to deal with the water situation across the country, some-times owing to its hostile stances to development partners given that some of these organisations were banned from carrying out humanitarian work in 2008. Most of the current major manmade water bodies such as the largest inland Lake Kyle, the Kariba Dam, Lake Chivero and others were all built by the then, pre-1980 Rhodesian government after which the new government which took over went to sleep on major water projects even those that had already been earmarked before independence. One such project the Tokwe-Mukosi dam is only beginning to take shape 33 years after independence. This is without mentioning the lack of refurbishment - dealing with siltation and water weeds - on the old ones.

    Some of the projects like the Zambezi water project which has always been on the government agenda remain paper tigers without any progress on the ground. In light of the Zambezi Water project, it is clear that had it been started and completed there would be no water woes in Zimbabwe’s industrial capital and second major city Bulawayo, the city would not be having a ridiculous inadequate water shedding routine.

    Water problems and food insecurity

    However, the issue of water shortages, especially in rural areas, cannot be mentioned without pinpointing its impact on rural agriculture in Zimbabwe’s dry regions, despite their capacity for irrigation farming should the necessary resources be availed. The government’s disinvestment in water infrastructure over the years has contributed to Zimbabwe’s empty water bucket and partly its empty breadbasket, plus desperate food situation in dry districts.

    What is worrying is that the lack of investment on the water front is also replicated on other infrastructural fronts such as the dilapidated road and rail networks, and sewer systems and housing backlogs which combine to tell the whole story of infrastructural backwardness and a government that fell asleep on the job.

    Let’s see how it goes

    With continued dry conditions across the country the issue of water has become a ticking time bomb which must be addressed urgently by the Zanu-PF government. Without being too an alarmist, there could be another water disease outbreak this summer as things stand if urgent steps are not taken to remedy the water situation.

    During the opening of the 8th Parliament of Zimbabwe on September 17, President Robert Mugabe mentioned this issue and the plans to deal with the problem, including a USD144 million from China to deal with water problems in the capital city Harare.

    The water projects include three more dams for Harare in seven years. We wait to see whether there will be genuine progress on the matter and whether Zimbabwe’s increasingly empty bucket of water will be filled, with clean water, after some three decades of neglect.

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