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(Harare) – The water and sanitation crisis in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, places millions of residents at risk of waterborne disease, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Five years after cholera killed over 4,000 people and sickened 100,000 more, the conditions that allowed the epidemic to flourish persist in Harare’s high-density suburbs.

The 60-page report, “Troubled Water: Burst Pipes, Contaminated Wells, and Open Defecation in Zimbabwe’s Capital,” describes how residents have little access to potable water and sanitation services, and often resort to drinking water from shallow, unprotected wells that are contaminated with sewage, and to defecating outdoors. The conditions violate their right to water, sanitation, and health. The report is based on research conducted in 2012 and 2013 in Harare, including 80 interviews with residents, mostly women, in eight high-density suburbs.

“Harare’s water and sanitation system is broken and the government isn’t fixing it,” said Tiseke Kasambala, Southern Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “In many communities there is no water for drinking or bathing, there is sewage in the streets, there is diarrhea and typhoid and the threat of another cholera epidemic.”

Many residents said that the lack of household water forced them to wait for water at boreholes for up to five hours a day, and that violence frequently erupted when lines were especially long. People believe these boreholes – 200 of which were drilled by international agencies during the cholera epidemic – are the safest water option available, yet one-third of boreholes tested in Harare by Harare Water, the city agency in charge of water, showed contamination. 

Residents also said that the city charged them for municipal water even when the water flowed only sporadically or was contaminated. If people were unable to pay their bills, the city turned off their water supply.

Some residents described raw sewage flowing into their homes and streets from burst pipes, in which children frequently played. The water shortage and the lack of functioning indoor toilets or community latrines sometimes gave them no choice but to defecate outdoors.

One mother told Human Rights Watch: “We have one toilet for the whole house and there are 21 people who live here. The flushing system doesn’t work because there is no water, so we have to use buckets. When there isn’t any water for flushing we just use the bush.”

Corruption and mismanagement at the local and national levels of government exacerbate the situation, Human Rights Watch said. For example, city budget guidelines specify that most of the revenue from water must be ploughed back into the system for maintenance and improvement, but even government officials acknowledged that the money is diverted for other uses. As a result, key parts of the service delivery system, like purchasing water treatment chemicals, are not adequately funded, leading the city to produce less potable water.  

Until the late 1980s, Zimbabwe had a functioning water system, with access to potable water for 85 percent of the population. In Harare, remnants of this system are visible in a complex piped water and sewage system to which many residents are connected. The piped infrastructure has not been maintained, however. The result of deterioration of the system combined with a significant increase in the population is that the water now runs only sporadically and is often contaminated.
“Everyone has a right to access a minimum amount of potable water,” Kasambala said. “The government’s inability to maintain the water system and its practice of disconnecting those unable to pay forces people to drink water from contaminated taps or from unprotected wells.”

The government should take a number of steps to improve Harare’s water and sanitation crisis, including investing in low-cost sanitation and water strategies. These include providing community toilets and pit latrines, and drilling and maintaining boreholes so that residents do not have to rely on contaminated sources. A sliding fee scale for municipal water should be put in place to provide affordable water for low-income families, and no home should be disconnected from the city water supply for lack of payment.

Earlier in 2013, the government announced a US$144 million loan from the Chinese government, with 46 Chinese engineers coming to Harare, to upgrade the water infrastructure primarily by improving the sewage treatment plants. While the government has promoted the loan as the solution to Harare’s water crisis, its terms have not been made public. Critics have decried the loan as exemplifying the lack of transparency and corruption in water and sewage services.  

The government of Zimbabwe is obliged under international law to protect the right to water and sanitation, Human Rights Watch said. In 2010, Zimbabwe voted for a United Nations General Assembly resolution establishing the right to water and sanitation. The recognition of this right acknowledges that water and sanitation are crucial not only for health, but also for other key aspects of development, such as gender equality, education and economic growth. Zimbabwe’s constitution and domestic laws protect the right to water and, through protections concerning the environment, the right to sanitation. In May, Zimbabwe ratified a new constitution that includes an explicit right to water.

“Harare’s water and sanitation system has been destroyed by decades of neglect and by ongoing mismanagement and corruption,” Kasambala said. “The 2008 cholera epidemic was a visible catastrophe, but less visible suffering, deaths, and indignity continue.”

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