Water Crisis Dampens Dreams in New Suburbs

Residents of Zimbabwe’s capital city fled to developments seeking more space for less cost. Instead, they face a chronic water shortage that leaves them open to deadly diseases.

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Water Crisis Dampens Dreams in New Suburbs

Linda Mujuru, GPJ Zimbabwe

Violet Chalumbira fetches water from a dam near her house in a new suburb in Harare, Zimbabwe's capital. People from her neighborhood also go there because they do not have running water in their homes.

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HARARE, ZIMBABWE — On an October morning, 24-year-old Violet Chalumbira takes a 20-liter bucket from her kitchen and heads for a well in her yard. Her 20-month-old son, Daniel Makurumidze, trails along, familiar with this daily routine.

Chalumbira grabs a tin tied to a rope and throws it into the well. She draws out milky white water, which she’ll use for cooking and for washing dishes.

The married mother of three has no choice. She has lived in her home for three years, but still has no running water.

Chalumbira lives in Stoneridge Park, a new suburb in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital. Like many occupants of recently built developments, she moved there to fulfill her dream of becoming a homeowner.

What she didn’t count on was a problem many new suburbanites face: an ongoing water shortage that experts blame on Harare’s growth, lack of water treatment facilities, and alleged corruption. So residents in places such as Stoneridge Park must build wells and boreholes, which may worsen Harare’s water issues in the long run.

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Linda Mujuru, GPJ Zimbabwe

Violet Chalumbira, with her son, Daniel Makurumidze, draws water from a well at her house in a new suburb in Harare. This is her daily routine when she needs water to use in her home. The house does not have running water.

The chronic crisis has already caused repeated outbreaks of diseases such as typhoid and cholera, which are potentially fatal.

“Unavailability of water affects me because l have had to spend more time looking for water to use,” Chalumbira says. “The water we get from the wells isn’t enough and neither is it safe to drink.”

Since 2000, Harare’s population has grown by nearly 9%, to 1.5 million. Research by Innocent Nhapi, a water management expert, has found that “rapid population growth, inadequate maintenance of wastewater treatment plants, expensive technologies and a poor institutional framework” have all fueled Harare’s water issues in recent years.

The population growth has fed Harare’s new suburbs, where residents seek housing that’s more spacious and less costly than in other parts of the city.

The communities are supposed to come with roads and drainage, as well as water and sewer lines. Without such services, developers cannot acquire certificates of compliance, allowing them to build. And a homeowner should not receive a certificate of occupation for a house without water and sewage.

Yet homeowners find themselves having to install wells and septic tanks. In the current dry season, residents in many neighborhoods must line up for water at community boreholes.

“The system has sufficient checks and balances,” says Percy Toriro, an urban planning expert. “When one then sees people resorting to wells and boreholes where certificates of occupation are issued, the situation is unusual. I would suspect corruption in the manner the certificates were issued.”

“The water we get from the wells isn’t enough and neither is it safe to drink.”

Lawmakers know of the water woes and are placing boreholes and water tanks at key points, says Michael Chideme, a spokesperson for City Council. He denies allegations of corruption in the permitting process.

Innocent Ruwende, another City Council spokesperson, blames the water crisis on Harare residents themselves. Ruwende says they owe 2 billion Zimbabwean dollars ($24.4 million) in water bill payments.

“This has stalled not only water production but service delivery in general,” he says. “Only 25% of ratepayers are honoring their council debts. At the moment, we cannot guarantee that we will be able to provide enough water, but we are trying our best.”

Beyond alleged corruption and delinquent bill payments, officials also grapple with potential environmental harm from wells and boreholes. Marjorie Manyonga, corporate communications and marketing manager for the Zimbabwe National Water Authority, says it’s illegal for residents to build those structures without permits, and too many in one area can drain the water table and cause other problems.

“Over-abstraction of groundwater can affect the integrity of buildings and other infrastructure, such as roads and bridges,” by weakening their foundations, she says.

Research by geologist Tim Broderick found that drilling boreholes has long-term effects on Harare’s water supply.

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Linda Mujuru, GPJ Zimbabwe

Violet Chalumbira’s home in Stoneridge Park, a new suburb in Harare, has not had running water since she moved in three years ago. Neither do any of the other homes in the community.

“There would seem to be no doubt that the increased abstraction of groundwater through this dense array of borehole use is aggravating drawdown of the water table,” he writes in a 2012 paper.

Lack of water also has led to outbreaks of such diseases as cholera and typhoid. In September 2018, the city saw more than 8,500 cases and 50 deaths from cholera. And in recent years, typhoid outbreaks in Harare have become a grim annual ritual.

“There are cases of diseases such as cholera and typhoid that have been recurring here and we have had to use water [purifiers],’’ says Chalumbira.

Slim and friendly, Chalumbira moved to Stoneridge Park to escape the high rents of her old community. She bought land and submitted her house plan for approval. When the house went up, she says, she knew it didn’t have water or sewer lines. But she was desperate to move there.

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Her two-room cottage and 300-square-meter yard mirror other residences in the suburb. The community is so new that it remains littered with boulders and rocks, and the path to Chalumbira’s home is a dusty dirt road.

Community residents have complained to the City Council about the lack of water, Chalumbira says. More generally, the Harare Residents Trust, an advocacy group, also has lobbied lawmakers to resolve the city’s water crisis.

Chalumbira says the lack of water touches virtually every part of her life.

She says she spends hours each week in lines for drinking water, and at times must make several trips a day searching for it.

She owns a small business running errands and doing housework for clients, and the time consumed seeking water takes away time from her work, she says.

Chalumbira says she moistens her garden with water from her well, but it isn’t enough, leaving her with puny vegetables. And she uses water from bathing and washing dishes to flush the toilet.

“We acknowledge the efforts to provide housing, but other social amenities should be provided as well,” she says. “Otherwise we are left with no option except to dig wells illegally.”

Linda Mujuru is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Harare, Zimbabwe. She specializes in reporting on agriculture and the economy.

Translation Note

Linda Mujuru, GPJ, translated some interviews from Shona. Click here to learn more about our translation policy.

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