Human Rights

In Zimbabwe People Use Water From Dam Where Deaths are Common, Officials Do Little to Secure It

 

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Epworth residents gather at the Epworth Quarry Dam after hearing that a man had drowned there. Hundreds of people have died in the dam. Linda Mujuru, GPJ Zimbabwe
Zimbabwe

Hundreds of people have died in the Epworth Quarry Dam, but local officials say little has been done to keep people away from the water. Local people use the water for basic household tasks because, as city taps run dry, it’s a primary water source.

EPWORTH, ZIMBABWE — A bag and a pair of shoes sit, abandoned, on a rock at the end of the state-owned Epworth Quarry Dam.

A small crowd gathers, but people soon realize that another person has drowned. This time, it was a young man.

On the other side of the dam, women draw water and wash their laundry, as though nothing has happened.

The dam is unfenced, with huge boulders on its sides. It is the primary water source for the town of Epworth, as well as a primary hazard. It’s common to hear of people killing themselves, murdering others or accidentally drowning in the water. Hundreds of people have died in the dam, according to local estimates. Statistics provided by the Epworth police, who are tasked with retrieving the bodies, reveal that nine people have drowned or committed suicide in the dam since 2014. Data for years prior to 2014 was unavailable.

Two people died in the dam in September 2016 alone according to data provided by the Epworth police.

But for local people, the dam is the main water source, so they keep drawing from it.

Local government officials acknowledge that there has not been a meaningful effort to secure the dam or to ensure safe access to water.

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Epworth residents take water from the dam for their washing, even though many people have died in the reservoir.

Gamuchirai Masiyiwa, GPJ Zimbabwe

Epworth, home to more than 160,000 people, is located about 20 kilometers (about 12 miles) from Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital city. The area has individualized water infrastructure which should allow people to have water access in their homes, but due to a lack of pumping capacity the taps here are always dry.

Epworth residents’ drinking water comes from home wells, but those wells usually don’t provide enough water for all their needs, so they go to the dam for water to use for bathing, gardening and other needs. People who don’t have home wells buy 20-liter buckets of water for 10 cents each from people who do have wells.

Eva Muchaneta, the Epworth Councillor for Ward 5, where the dam is located, says that in addition to the hundreds of deaths that have occurred in the dam, the site is also used as a dumping area for dead bodies.

She says the Epworth Council is looking for people who can assist in securing the dam but acknowledges that the efforts have been minimal.

“A security fence was once erected, but it was stolen because no one was protecting the fence,” she says.

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Hundreds of people have died in the Epworth Quarry Dam, including people who commit suicide and those who accidentally drown. Dead bodies have also been tossed in the water.

Gamuchirai Masiyiwa, GPJ Zimbabwe

Phillip Mbayimbayi, chairman of the Epworth Home Industry Association, an association of Epworth residents who also own small businesses here, says action must be taken.

“The dam needs to be walled, gated and guarded,” Mbayimbayi says, adding that people need ongoing access to the water for irrigation and other uses.

The community only has access to council water, provided by the local government through taps, once or twice a month, he says.

“The dam water needs to be purified for it to be safe to drink,” he says.

Epworth was once famous for its Balancing Rocks, a towering natural architectural attraction that were featured on Zimbabwean dollar notes before the country stopped printing its own currency in 2009.

The town was also known for its quarry mine, which was in use until 1957, when miners hit the water table and the mine became the present-day dam.

When the miners hit the water, many were trapped and died there, says Henry Kane development coordinator of the Epworth Residence Development Association.

“With the numerous deaths and suicides, there is a myth that there is a spirit of a mermaid (in the dam), but how the mermaid came to be there is a mystery,” he says.

In Zimbabwean culture, mermaids are thought to have influence over the conservation of the environment. They act as powerful guards of the environment, and, it is believed, they hound people who want to damage it.

For local residents, the dam offers both opportunity and peril.

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Brickmakers set up their work spaces near the Epworth Quarry Dam, where they take as much water as they need.

Gamuchirai Masiyiwa, GPJ Zimbabwe

Leeroy Njanji is a brick maker who sets up his work space about five meters from the dam, where he gets all of his water. His profit is about $700 per month – a healthy income in this cash-strapped country.

“In the past five years, l have saved more than 35 people from drowning in the dam,” he says. “One of them wanted to kill herself after testing positive for HIV.”

Njanji says he hopes local authorities will safeguard the dam, even though he knows that could curtail his access to the water.

Other residents say they benefit from the dam, too.

Rambo Victor Kazembe teaches swimming lessons there.

“I am searching for swimming talents within children so that we can compete in swimming competitions,” he says. “We can make a difference with these talents.”

Even people who have lost loved ones say they benefit from having access to the dam’s water.

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Nyembesi Ranganai lost her infant grandson in the dam nearly 20 years ago. His mother, Ranganai’s daughter, threw him into the dam after she gave birth to him.

Gamuchirai Masiyiwa, GPJ Zimbabwe

Nyembesi Ranganai, 54, lost her infant grandson in the dam in 1997. Ranganai’s daughter gave birth to him, then threw him into the water. She says her daughter served time in prison for that crime.

The memory still causes Ranganai distress, but she acknowledges that she uses the dam’s water.

“I have a small garden and l utilize the dam water for gardening purposes. I also use the water for washing my laundry and for bathing,” she says.

But the dam should be protected, she says.

“If possible there is need to put a wall around the dam and electricity supply to pump out water, so that people do not risk themselves when fetching water…if a fence is erected people will just steal the fence,” she says.

 

Linda Mujuru translated some interviews from Shona.