Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Cholera Fears as Bulawayo Water Crisis Continues

No sign yet that the government will step in to head off the health risks posed by growing water shortages.
By Yamikani Mwando
Bulawayo city council this week announced an outbreak of diarrhoea amid growing fears of a cholera epidemic, but the government in Harare remains unresponsive to calls to declare the water shortage a national crisis.



Officials in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second city, say that only when the government formally designates the water problems as a crisis will resources be pumped in to avert what many here already see as a major humanitarian disaster.



A council spokesman this week told a state-controlled daily newspaper that a number of people had now contracted cholera, the deadly water-borne disease that proliferates in areas with inadequate access to clean water.



This revelation, and reports that hundreds of people have been treated for diarrhoea, come as no surprise given the lack of mains water which has forced many in this city of more than two million to use untreated water.



Because of the persistent power cuts, people are unable to boil the potentially harmful water they collect from boreholes and other outside sources.



With some townships reporting water outages for seven days in a row, domestic lavatories have all but stopped functioning, and people are using areas where there are trees and bushes as open latrines, while health officials warn of the risks of disease.



“I wake up at about five in the morning when many people are still in bed and head for the bush,” said local resident Hilary Ndlovu, 27, explaining how he takes a hoe with him and digs a makeshift latrine.



“It’s increasingly becoming difficult to do the rounds in these areas because of the human waste,” said a council forest ranger.



Pathisa Nyathi, a spokesman for Bulawayo city council, said there was no need for people to behave like this. “We have publicised the water cuts timetable so people can stock up water,” he said.



However, residents complain they cannot store enough water to last them for the seven days they are likely to need it.



There is no sign that the water shortage will ease any time soon.



Information Minister Sikhanyiso Ndlovu recently told state media that the government had an obligation to step in and deal with the water crisis. “The people of Matebeleland must not feel they are being punished by the government,” he said.



However, the government has made it clear that assistance will not come until Bulawayo’s leaders agree to have the Zimbabwe National Water Authority, ZINWA, take over the city’s water network.



Munacho Mutezo, Zimbabwe’s minister for water and infrastructure, said recently that the government would not intervene, and cited the city administration’s resistance to a ZINWA takeover.



Mayor Japhet Ndabeni-Ncube, who belongs to the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, says “they [government] want Bulawayo dead”.



Bulawayo city council is run by the MDC, which fears that the government wants to replace it with an appointed commission. There is a precedent for this - in April 2003, the elected council in the capital Harare, led by MDC executive mayor Elias Mudzuri, was dismissed and a commission was installed which still runs the city.



Bulawayo has faced acute problems since with the major reservoir that supplies its water all but dried up after last year’s poor rains.



An ambition project to bring water to Matebeleland from the Zambezi river 450 kilometres to the north has failed to get off the ground since independence in 1980, and some suspect the inaction is due to official resistance to helping this region, seen as a stronghold of opposition to President Robert Mugabe.



Some Bulawayo councillors blame the city’s current water problems on the government’s reluctance to back the Zambezi project.



“Each year, the council discusses the problem, and each year government frustrates us,” said a councillor who spoke on condition of anonymity.



Meanwhile, as the war of words between Bulawayo council and central government drags on, the health risks are likely to become greater as people continue drinking and washing in water from polluted sources.



Yamikani Mwando is the pseudonym of a reporter in Zimbabwe.