A significant number of women spend as much as six hours a day in queues waiting to fetch water at boreholes, bowsers and other water sources.
It is a privileged few who can afford to buy tanks of up to 5 000 litres costing an average US$500 that can sit back and put their feet up while others jostle for a few litres in buckets only to return tomorrow to fight anew.
Most are forced to cut corners where hygiene is concerned while trying to save water, consequently compromising their health and those of their families. The water crisis could not have come at a worse time; as the country and the rest of the world is in the middle of a fight against the Covid-19 pandemic.
One of the World Health Organisation recommendations to help slow the spread of Covid-19 is to wash hands with soap and running water frequently, which is proving impossible for many households in the city.
Out of desperation, some vandalise pipes and water hydrants to get the little water they can, which is often dirty, to fill up their 20-litre containers for the day’s use. Not so long ago, these water challenges saw an outbreak of typhoid and dysentery in Luveve suburb and surrounding areas leading to the death of 13 people.
More could die if the crisis persists with council unclear on measures put in place to mitigate against a disease outbreak.
“How hard is it to have a plan or schedule and stick to it? I’m sure if you say water comes on Wednesday and it does, we won’t have these cases of vandalism. The problem is lack of trust. The city places itself in these situations,” said @van_vodloza, a Twitter user lamenting council’s failure to supply water. His sentiments echo many others who feel the council has let them down by failing to supply water consistently.
According to research, 80 percent of illnesses are linked to poor water and sanitation conditions and 10 percent of the global disease could be reduced through improved water supply, sanitation, and hygiene.
Research also shows that 842 000 diarrhoeal disease deaths per year result from unsafe water, sanitation and hygiene. Also, 1 800 child deaths every day are linked to water, sanitation and hygiene. Water is an absolute necessity and yet 443 million school days are lost each year due to water-related diseases while 783 million people do not have access to clean and safe water worldwide.
In a statement, the Bulawayo Town Clerk, Mr Christopher Dube, reported that council was abandoning the 144-hour water shedding schedule in most high-density suburbs and will only supply water as and when it is available at Magwegwe and Criterion reservoirs. This further worsens the water woes for residents who are already getting the precious liquid an average of one day per week.
The latest development, the local authority announced, was triggered by water pumping challenges at two of the city’s major reservoirs after the theft of two kilometres of electricity supply cables. To further impair the situation, the BCC also experienced three emergency leaks repairs to the Nyamandlovu pipeline and power supply challenges to the Rochester Nyamandlovu boreholes.
A significant number of residents have turned to borehole water which is unsafe for drinking as it is susceptible to contamination from burst sewers and soil bacteria. People are repeatedly advised to boil the water before drinking it but often, those who live in areas without sufficient safe, clean water, learn to live with diarrhea and other drinking water contamination effects and no longer bother themselves. Entire communities exist in a continual state of being half-well which directly affects their livelihoods.
“They take it for granted that they’re just going to be sick periodically — it’s just a fact of life. Stomach aches become the norm. Fatigue and lethargy become common place. They struggle to be one 100 percent fruitful and prosperous. The condition of the people becomes the condition of their society,” said health expert, Ms Portia Ncube.
She said increasing evidence shows that household water treatment and safe storage are associated with significant health gains where available water is contaminated.
“A simple water filter makes a significant impact to our nutrient base (what we put in our bodies) — including water,” said Ms Ncube.
One by-product of not having access to clean drinking water is stunting. It is described as low height for age or a height more than two standard deviations below the WHO Child Growth Standards median. Globally, an estimated one in four children under the age of five suffer from stunting.
Experts say there are simple solutions to solving this. For example, using clean water is one of the best ways to stop children from losing essential nutrients vital to growth.
Meanwhile, BCC Director of Engineering Services Simela Dube said council could not guarantee that borehole water was safe for drinking.
“Bacteriological quality of borehole water cannot be guaranteed since the water was untreated and subject to contamination at any time from environmental factors like sewer overflows and bacteriological contaminated soil. Residents are therefore advised to boil borehole water before drinking,” said Eng Dube. He said demand for bowser supplied water had also increased as more high lying areas continue to be without water beyond the scheduled water rationing periods.
BPRA co-ordinator Mr Emmanuel Ndlovu said the city’s water crisis should be managed better.
“The Bulawayo water crisis is mainly man-made. The world over there seems to be a water crisis and authorities are working to lessen the impact of such crises. South Africa’s Cape Town managed to deal with what could have been the worst water crisis through innovation and leadership but here we’re not seeing that. We’re only seeing council passing resolutions where they are parcelling out land for their personal gains. When it comes to innovation to address the city’s problems, there’s zero thinking. BCC is said to be the best run city in the country and we expect better from it,” said Mr Ndlovu.
He said council should have long moved towards drawing water from aquifers as climate change has proved that rainfed water cannot be relied on. Council is in the process of erecting 25 water kiosks in 14 suburbs worst affected by the water crisis to improve supplies.
The BCC wants to recycle Khami Dam water as part of its medium-term solution to the persistent water crisis and have called on residents to support the initiative.
Treasury disbursed $205 million in support of efforts to improve water supply in Bulawayo with Finance and Economic Development, Professor Mthuli Ncube noting that provision of potable water was critical and also key to the revival of industries in the city.
From the $205 million, $130 million will be used to rehabilitate and drill 30 boreholes in Nyamandlovu including the eagerly awaited Epping Forest Project while the rest will be channelled towards improving supplies from Mtshabezi Dam.
The Epping Forest Project is projected to increase daily water supply to the city from about four megalitres per day to 25ML. Upgrading Mtshabezi will avail up to 27ML daily, up from the present 15ML.
The snowballing cost and expense in time and resources caused by poor access to water or sanitation is staggering, which makes it all the more urgent to invest in bringing access to clean water and sanitation.