ZIMBABWE

Water cut off for all residents of indebted Zimbabwe town

It’s been a week now since the residents of Kwekwe, Zimbabwe, have seen any water come out of their taps. The city has gotten into debt with the national water authority; as punishment, its water supply has been cut off. Our Observer tells us that residents are paying a stiff price.

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Residents of Redcliff, Zimbabwe, gather water from a private borehole. 

It’s been a week now since the residents of Kwekwe, Zimbabwe, have seen any water come out of their taps. The city has gotten into debt with the national water authority; as punishment, its water supply has been cut off. Our Observer tells us that residents are paying a stiff price.

According to the Zimbabwe National Water Authority (ZINWA), the town of Kwekwe has an outstanding debt of more than one million dollars, which it owes for raw water supplies. While ZINWA’s representative Marjorie Munyonga told FRANCE 24 via email that water supplies have been “provisionally restored while Kwekwe municipality works on the modalities of retiring their debt”, locals said that they still had no water as of Thursday.

Between Kwekwe and its suburb of Redcliff, which depends on the city’s water supplies, approximately 135,000 people have been affected by the cuts. Over the previous two years, ZINWA had already cut off the cash-strapped city’s water supplies several times, but for no more than a couple of days.

ZINWA runs the dams that provide raw water to communities across Zimbabwe. Municipalities pay for this service, and in turn pass on the cost to residents through water fees.

Residents gather water from a family's private borehole in Redcliff on Wednesday. The borehole, located inside the family's courtyard, is connected to the street via a hose. 

“Children are getting sick; people fear the spectre of cholera”

Tendai Mbofana is a communications consultant who lives in Redcliff.

When we discovered our taps were dry last Thursday, we didn’t panic. We are used to having cuts here once in a while, usually for just a few hours; people figured a pipe must have burst. But on Friday, there still was no water. Finally, on Saturday, a car from the municipality went around town with a loudspeaker, explaining that the water had been cut because Redcliff owed money to the government. Since then, nobody’s told us anything, and it’s been a week since we’ve had a single drop of water in our taps!

People are struggling to find enough water. There are about 20 families in Redcliff who have private boreholes, and five of them are giving away water for free. A couple others are charging money – 1 US dollar for 4 buckets. The rest are refusing to share their water, saying that it’s too expensive for them to run the pumps needed to get the water out.

Distributing water from a borehole in Redcliff.

 

"People can no longer use their toilets"

People are lining up at the open boreholes with buckets, bottles, pitchers – whatever they can find to fill up. This water is not at all sufficient for everyone who lives here, so people are using as little water as possible. Cooking is the priority; people are bathing less. They’re also no longer able to flush toilets; some local businesses have shut down because of the hygienic problems this causes. There’s a mining company in town that employs somewhere between 150 and 200 people; they’ve sent all their employees home for the rest of the week, because it just wasn’t possible to work with no functioning toilets.

A Redcliff resident heading out to gather water. 

People’s crops are dying. Redcliff was built decades ago as a mining town; when most of its mining operations shut down a few years back, lots of residents were left unemployed and many started planting crops in order to survive, whether through selling vegetables or just feeding their families with small gardens. Not being able to water their crops is leaving these families even more desperate.

 

“Why should residents who pay their water bills suffer when it’s the city authorities that are at fault?”

Another concern is the quality of the water we’re now drinking. Here, people usually drink tap water; the families who have private boreholes don’t use it for drinking, but rather gardening, cleaning and the like. These wells are not well protected. Quite a few people I have talked to say their children are getting diarrhea, and have taken them out of school. People here fear getting cholera, as the country experienced a major outbreak just a few years ago.

Everybody is really disappointed in the authorities. Most residents pay their water bills, so why should they suffer when it’s the city authorities that are at fault? [Editor’s Note: Water bills in Redcliff are already higher than in most Zimbabwe municipalities; nonprofit organisations have blamed the Redcliff authorities for this]. Earlier this year, the country’s constitutional court ruled that municipalities couldn’t cut off residents’ water for failing to pay their bills without a court order. Shouldn’t the same right be extended to entire towns, especially if residents have paid their bills?

Authorities in cash-strapped Kwekwe have reportedly approached the country’s high court to try to force ZINWA to resume supplying water.

This is not the first time Zimbabwe’s water authority has cut off water to entire communities over unpaid debts. In the past year, it has cut off water to scores of villagers in the country’s east, to hundreds of prisoners in the northeastern town of Marondera, and to thousands of residents in the southern town of Gwanda.

Many of Zimbabwe’s cities are in a sorry financial state, in the image of the country itself. The economy has seen two successive quarters of negative growth. According to the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, Zimbabwe is now an insolvent state.

Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Gaelle Faure (@gjfaure).