Scramble for Water Dominates Life in Bulawayo

Residents of Zimbabwe’s second-largest city sometimes go months without running water due to a severe drought. The crisis has forced them to ration a daily necessity.

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Scramble for Water Dominates Life in Bulawayo

Fortune Moyo, GPJ Zimbabwe

Anesu Dube stores as much water as she can in pots, bottles and other containers in her house. Used sparingly, the water will last her family about three or four days.

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BULAWAYO, ZIMBABWE — At 2 a.m. on a chilly Tuesday, Anesu Dube wakes to the sound of water dripping from the tap near a neighbor’s house and rushes outside. Water is flowing from her own tap as well — the first running water she has seen at her house in a month and a half.

Dube begins washing her children’s clothes and reaching for every empty container she can reach. She fills a 100-liter plastic garbage bin, several pots and nearly two dozen plastic bottles of various sizes, from 20 liters down to 2 liters.

“I cannot go back and sleep,” Dube says. “I need to make sure that I collect water in all containers in my house, because by 7 a.m., the water stops coming out.”

After that, it may be days, weeks or even months before her tap starts running again.

Dube, 32, lives with her husband and three children in Cowdray Park, a densely populated suburb of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second-largest city. A friendly, outgoing woman, she normally starts her day at 6 a.m., ahead of her part-time job cleaning and washing clothes for a local family, and looking after their 1-year-old son. Running water has become a precious resource in this part of the country, however, and the scramble to obtain it has come to dominate daily life in the city.

“The water situation is extremely exhausting and frustrating, because you have to be always thinking about when next it will come,” Dube says.

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Fortune Moyo, GPJ Zimbabwe

Children jostle to fill water containers at a borehole site in Lobengula, a suburb of Bulawayo. The city has about two dozen of these wells, and residents often wait hours for their turn at the pump.

The southwestern region of Matabeleland, where Bulawayo is the main urban center, is in the midst of a severe drought. Across Southern Africa, the 2018-2019 rainy season, which runs from October through April, was the driest since at least 1981, and rainfall in parts of Zimbabwe was 50% below average.

Water levels in local dams have fallen severely. Beginning in June 2019, officials decommissioned three of the six dams that serve the city because of a lack of water, and the three remaining dams were only 24% to 40% full as of late October, according to a report from the Bulawayo City Council.

This has created a crisis for Bulawayo residents. While some neighborhoods have experienced water shortages in the past, this year water has become scarce across all of Bulawayo’s residential areas — a situation that affects more than 600,000 people. Other cities and towns in Zimbabwe, including the capital, Harare, are also experiencing water shortages, but not like Bulawayo.

Rationing has become the norm. The containers Dube fills from her tap hold enough water to last her family about three or four days — if used sparingly.

“We have a timetable for flushing our toilet,” Dube says. “We only flush when one defecates. When it’s just urine, we don’t flush. We flush the toilet twice a day — first thing in the morning and around 6 p.m.”

Other residents have similarly cut back on chores and basic hygiene. “We no longer take a bath every day,” says Mbali Ncube, 18, who lives with her grandmother and 7-year-old sister. “We skip a day or two before our next bath.”

“The water situation is extremely exhausting and frustrating, because you have to be always thinking about when next it will come.”Bulawayo resident

The water shortage has forced many residents to rely on boreholes — deep holes drilled into the earth, with pumps installed to draw water to the surface. These provide water that is generally unsafe for drinking and must be boiled and run through a sieve to remove dirt.

About two dozen borehole sites exist around Bulawayo, according to the city council, with 10 more being drilled. At the pumps, groups of people — mostly mothers, girls and young children — chat, laugh and jostle with one another to fill their containers.

Residents often travel considerable distances to reach the boreholes. Dube walks about 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) — a journey that takes 30 to 40 minutes. Dumisani Ndlovu, a resident of Lobengula, a suburb on the western edge of Bulawayo, walks about 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) to collect water for himself and his small garden, where he grows chomolia (a type of kale), onions and other vegetables.

Once there, the wait can sometimes be grueling. “The borehole site I often collect water from also services three other suburbs, so there is lots of scrambling,” Ndlovu says. Despite arriving at 6 a.m., he waited for five hours for his turn at the pump.

“The day my tap runs dry, I immediately become exhausted at the thought of the heat and long queues at the borehole site,” he says. “Knowing there is nothing you can do about the situation makes me feel helpless.”

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Fortune Moyo, GPJ Zimbabwe

The city uses large water tanks to provide water to Bulawayo’s suburbs.

Some people wear masks at the boreholes, due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. But for most residents, the need for water is a more pressing issue, Ndlovu says.

The lack of water has raised other public health concerns. “The desperate water situation has unfortunately forced people to use the bushes to relieve themselves,” says Busani Mbambo, a representative of a local residents’ association in Bulawayo.

Open defecation can lead to an upsurge of diarrheal diseases such as cholera. In June in the Bulawayo suburb of Luveve, nine people died, and more than 1,500 were affected with diarrhea, according to Nesisa Mpofu, a senior public relations officer for the city council.

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To alleviate the crisis, the city has been deploying water bowsers — mobile water tanks — to various neighborhoods, and working to repair and replace aging water pipes. “Measures we have taken to try and ease the desperate situation include creating water kiosks and providing water using water bowsers, although they are inadequate to cover the city,” Mpofu says.

The only true relief will come from a robust rainy season, which is just getting underway.

Meteorologists are predicting that Bulawayo will receive above-average rainfall over the course of the 2020-2021 season, which would replenish the local dams and ease the pressure on residents to ration water.

“We are praying for good rains this year,” says Dube. “It’s the only way our lives can get back to normal.”

Fortune Moyo is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. She specializes in stories about the impact of Zimbabwe’s fragile economy on education.

Translation Note

Fortune Moyo, GPJ, translated some interviews from isiNdebele. Click here to learn more about our translation policy.