THE NGO NETWORK ALLIANCE PROJECT - an online community for Zimbabwean activists  
 View archive by sector


Back to Index

Troubled water: Burst pipes, contaminated wells, and open defecation in Zimbabwe's capital
Human Rights Watch
November 19, 2013

Download this document
- Acrobat PDF version (4.8MB)
If you do not have the free Acrobat reader on your computer, download it from the Adobe website by clicking here


Abigail Chomo, a widow, lives in a small brick house with her three children in Dzivarasekwa, a working class suburb west of Harare, Zimbabwe's capital. She used to have four children. In November 2012, her youngest daughter, Helen, contracted typhoid fever at age 4, probably from drinking contaminated water. Although typhoid fever is treatable with antibiotics, Helen was also HIV positive and had a weak immune system, and died.

Abigail's daughter was not the only family member who died from a waterborne disease. Four years earlier, her mother was one of an estimated 4,200 people in Zimbabwe to die from cholera. With prompt and proper treatment, cholera, like typhoid, can have a mortality rate below 1 percent. Without prompt treatment, however, mortality rates can soar. The Zimbabwean government's response to the cholera outbreak was characterized by denial, neglect, and cover-up. Overall, between 2008 and 2009, 100,000 people in the country fell ill with cholera. It was Africa 's worst cholera epidemic in 15 years.

Children are particularly vulnerable to waterborne disease. In Zimbabwe, diarrhea is responsible for 10 percent of deaths of children under the age of five. Access to potable drinking water and appropriate sanitation can prevent waterborne diseases, including typhoid, cholera, and diarrhea.

Today, the same conditions that allowed the 2008-09 cholera epidemic to flourish - poor sanitation, high-density living conditions, lack of access to potable water, official denial of the magnitude of the problem, and lack of information about the safety of the public water supply - persist. Corruption, which has a negative impact on water governance globally, appears on the rise in Zimbabwe. In 2012, Transparency International ranked Zimbabwe the 13th most corrupt country in the world, a slip from its 2008 rank as 24th. According to the group, "When corruption leads to contaminated drinking water and destroyed ecosystems, the detrimental consequences are often irreversible."

The risk of another cholera outbreak in Harare is significant and the number of people sick from lack of access to potable water and sanitation is startling; in the past year there have been over 3,000 typhoid cases reported in Harare alone. Healthcare workers believe the actual number of people infected is much higher. According to the World Bank, the amount of municipal water available in Harare has dropped to the levels recorded during the cholera epidemic. The risk of another public health crisis cannot be discounted.

For people in Harare - and around the world, the denial of the right to water and sanitation has a significant impact on the realization of other fundamental human rights. Water and sanitation access are closely tied to the rights to life and to health. When lack of water and sanitation prevents children from attending school, the right to education suffers. The rights to participation and information, particularly for women and vulnerable groups, go hand and hand with ensuring equitable access to water, and are often violated by governments and policy makers. These links between water and sanitation rights and many other basic rights are increasingly acknowledged - most notably in authoritative commentary by UN experts. Upholding the rights to water and sanitation is necessary for demonstrating respect for human rights more broadly.

Human Rights Watch investigated the availability of potable water and sanitation in Harare between September 2012 and October 2013. We conducted 80 interviews in eight high-density areas in Harare and found a city with a considerable proportion of its population living in desperate and dangerous conditions. Our specific findings include: 1) the government's failure to provide access to potable water, 2) its failure to provide adequate health information, 3) the government's inability to address poor sanitation, and 4) public sector corruption and a lack of political will at all levels of government to address these problems.

Download this document (4.8MB)

Please credit if you make use of material from this website. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License unless stated otherwise.