As the search for water in Bulawayo becomes more desperate, diarrhoea outbreaks from dirty water are endangering children
It is 6am on a Saturday and residents of Sizinda, a poor suburb in Bulawayo, have begun their desperate hunt for water. The taps at home dried up three months ago.
Water has become a daily struggle in Zimbabwe’s second biggest city, largely the result of a severe drought last year which has dried up the reservoirs. The poor rains expected this year will bring more hardship.
The city has recorded 2,600 cases of diarrhoea since June – 600 in the past month, according to health service figures. The majority of cases are among children under five.
A drive along the streets of Sizinda follows a trail of desperation, as women and children clutching water buckets search for water.
At a railway line, hundreds of people try to collect muddy water pouring from a broken water pipe. People have little choice but to drink from unprotected water sources, despite the risks.
“It has been three months without water. While we hear that supplies have been restored in some other areas, there is nothing here. This is where we get water for household use, we have no choice,” says Sibusisiwe Moyo, 40, a rail worker.
“I work the night shift, but there is no time to rest because I have to come here early to fetch water. I had to come earlier when the water was cleaner and before the queue grew longer. This is a desperate situation, we need help.”
Omphile Masuka, 34, who has two children, says she feared the water from the burst water pipe could be contaminated.
“We are drinking sewage water and we are all going to get sick. The city council should respect us. What is surprising is that we have been paying bills every month without a drop of water. How is that fair when my children have to drink this dirty water?”
It’s difficult to fight Covid-19 without water, she adds.
“We have the right to water. What do they want us to do? We do not have boreholes, seriously we cannot survive like this.”
Some of Sizinda’s more affluent residents have sunk their own boreholes and installed water pumps. The less fortunate are forced to queue at community boreholes.
Others have taken advantage of the water shortages to make money, selling 25 litres of water from boreholes for $2 (£1.50).
Zimbabwe is in the grip of a nationwide water crisis due to poor rains and drought. Most local authorities have been forced to ration water. But Bulawayo, 450km south of Harare, is facing the worst crisis.
Edwin Sibanda, the Bulawayo health services director, says the council is distributing water through the city using bowsers “where possible”. But it’s not enough.
He confirmed outbreaks of diarrhoea in Bulawayo’s highly populated suburbs, and at Bulawayo Polytechnic College.
Sibanda says stool samples from those taken ill had also showed salmonella, shigella and pseudomonas bacteria, which could have come from unprotected water sources.
Nearly 2,000 cases of diarrhoea and 13 deaths were recorded in the neighbourhood of Luveve in June, says Sibanda. Mzilikazi, east of Bulawayo’s central business district, has recorded 397 cases over the past month.
A drive through the neighbourhood finds men pulling water carts, while women carry buckets of water in the sweltering heat.
The Guardian spoke to people outside a clinic, who pleaded for the government to help.
“My neighbour has two children who have diarrhoea, it is a desperate situation,” says Kind Maphosa, 56. “They drank water from the nearby borehole and started complaining of stomach pains.”
Buhle Mazibuko, 30, says: “Our young ones are in grave danger. We need help urgently. The council can start by delivering clean water to us, until the water situation improves.”
In Tshabalala, another neighbourhood of Bulawayo, a police officer bellows instructions to a line of women queueing for water. None of the residents are wearing face masks and there is no social distancing.
The officer orders those without face masks to go home, but no one moves.
The Covid-19 taskforce in Tshabalala fears more cases if regulations are not followed.
A local church has provided a water pump and residents are helping to pay the electricity to keep it running. But the water it provides is not adequate.
Jennifer Ncube, a member of the Covid-19 taskforce, says women have reported abuse at water points; some of the people manning the pumps have demanded money or other sexual favours in exchange for water.
“This water crisis is affecting women and the girl child. We have reports of abuse at boreholes … some take advantage of their desperation by charging $1 per bucket. This is unacceptable as everyone has the right to water,” she says.
Sibanda says the council is struggling to deal with Covid-19 and diarrhoea outbreaks at the same time.
“The precautions for diarrhoea are the same as those for Covid-19. How do you tell people to wash hands when there is no water?” he says.
“The absence of water in the city is the greatest risk for diarrhoea outbreaks. People think with their hearts when they do not have water. Safety and health are their least worries,” he says
A team from his department is trying to spread the message to only drink from safe water sources, but Sibanda says it is falling on closed ears.
Last week Zimbabwe’s auditor general, Mildred Chiri, warned of a looming nationwide diarrhoea outbreak.
“The raw sewage flowing on the ground will mix with potable water, thereby resulting in waterborne diseases,” Chiri said.
The water challenges have added to Zimbabwe’s deteriorating economic situation. Inflation is running at more than 800%, and basic foods are often hard to find.