Illegal water trade springs up as taps run dry in Zimbabwe



It Zimbabwe, it is not uncommon to have your water shut off — and it is happening to more and more people as the country slips further into economic crisis. When their taps run dry at home, Zimbabweans have to collect water at the nearest well. However, this comes at a price: 20 litres of well water usually sells for about a euro. While a minority are making money from the “water business” that has sprung up in light of shortages, it poses public health risks.

Zimbabwe is one of the poorest countries in the world and it is also prone to extreme drought. The effect on agriculture has been disastrous, and the southern African country has been in a state of natural disaster since February 2016. As if that weren’t enough, for the past few years, the country has been engulfed in a severe economic crisis caused by hyperinflation. This has only contributed to the already high rates of poverty.

A crowd of people wait around a well in Zimbabwe. Video published December 3 2016.

Public utilities in Zimbabwe are already unreliable. However, the difficult economic situation has meant that many people are unable to pay their water bills. In turn, municipalities have been unable to pay the public utilities companies that provide water. The result is that, in many towns and cities, water has been partially or totally shut off — and that’s when the water hustlers start working. These traders illegally take advantage of the void left by public services to make money. Some hawk small bottles of water on the street for about 50 euro cents, while those who are lucky enough to own wells sell 20-litre containers. What they’re doing is illegal, but there aren’t real police checks.

Owning a well in an urban setting is a sign of privilege in Zimbabwe. The installation alone costs at least 1,400 euros. With water selling for about 20 litres per euro, well-owners can rake in the cash quickly. According to one of our Observers, a family of five uses about 60 litres of water a day. This makes for a substantial expense to the family budget, especially when 80% of the population is unemployed and 70% live below the poverty line.

There are also people known as well "thieves", who take over wells that they don’t own and start selling the water, according to our Observer in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe.

“Small gangs take advantage of the crisis to make money”

Nigel Mugamu is the head of publications at the website 263Chat. He’s based in Harare.

Some wells that were originally dug by NGOs have been taken over by small gangs that are taking advantage of the situation to make money. This kind of trade doesn’t really exist in the countryside because most families there have their own wells and the villagers have a sense of community; they usually help each other out.

Most of the water trade is happening in urban zones with a medium population density, where the state hasn't done much to help. In areas that are much more densely populated, the people who live there are more likely to be getting the water they need. It varies between regions and even between different neighbourhoods in the same area.

Video of people waiting around a well in Zimbabwe, published December 1 2016 on YouTube. 

"There’s always the possibility that the water is contaminated"

Tendai Ruben Mbofana lives in Kwekwe, a medium-sized city in the centre of the country. He is an activist, writer and journalist.

Mbofana says that the high rate of unemployment has pushed many people to take up the water trade. The problem is, the work is far from sanitary and sometimes poses real health risks. Most of these vendors fill up used bottles with well water, even though they might claim to be selling mineral water.

According to our second Observer, the buying and selling of  water tends to occur around the wells, without a middle-man or delivery of larger containers. But for smaller amounts, the seller is generally an intemediary. 

Street hawkers sell little bottles of water for 50 euro cents to passers-by and drivers. The problem is that they're selling well water that they've put in used plastic bottles and passing it off as mineral water. No one inspects or monitors well water and it runs the risk of being contaminated. In any case, when we do have working tap water, it's never entirely pure anyway and we can usually see silt or dirt in it.

An estimated 33% of wells in Zimbabwe are contaminated, according to a 2013 video by the NGO Human Rights Watch. Moreover, only about 77% of the Zimbabwean population has access to a safe water source (as compared 90% globally), according to figures published by the World Bank.

When Zimbabweans with little or no income don’t have the money to pay water bills or buy containers of water, they just have to make do… and that often means compromising their health.

In some extremely poor regions, residents don’t have enough money to have a well built. In those cases, people dig deep holes to collect water. The water they get from these holes is usually dirty and can cause disease.

Other people desperate for water pierce public pipes and water lines and collect the water that spills out. Right now, it is raining heavily and, like other people in my city, I collect rainwater for the toilets and for washing dishes.