(Johannesburg) – Zimbabwe government measures to combat COVID-19 should include urgently providing continuous and affordable access to sufficient safe water to people across the country. Long before the coronavirus pandemic, much of Zimbabwe suffered a severe water and sanitation crisis. On March 30, 2020, Zimbabwe, like many countries, ordered a nationwide lockdown to slow the spread of the virus.

“Enforcing social distancing is critically important to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but people need clean water for drinking, handwashing, and hygiene,” said Dewa Mavhinga, southern Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The Zimbabwe government needs to ensure an uninterrupted supply of safe water for everyone, or face magnified health risks as people seek alternative, unsafe water sources.”

Over two million people in the capital city, Harare, and the greater metropolitan area incorporating Chitungwiza, Epworth, Ruwa, and Norton, have no household access to safe drinking water or adequate waste and wastewater disposal services. Thousands of women and school-age children may spend eight to nine hours and all night in line at crowded boreholes or narrow water wells to get water that may not be safe.

Over the last three decades, Zimbabwe has experienced a gradual decline in access to clean and safe water. In 1988, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reported that over 84 percent of Zimbabweans had access to safe drinking water. From 2000 to 2017, the percentage of people with access to safe water and basic water services decreased from 72 percent to 64 percent, and basic sanitation decreased from 46 percent to 36 percent.

Zimbabwe’s 2013 constitution provides in section 77(a) that “every person has the right to safe, clean, and potable water.” The WHO has stated that each person needs 20 to 50 liters of water free of contaminants a day for drinking and hygiene.

During a public health emergency, the government can restrict certain rights, such as freedom of movement, when strictly necessary, based on scientific evidence, neither arbitrary nor discriminatory in application, of limited duration, and respectful of human dignity. However, the government remains obligated to ensure that basic needs are met for people in lockdown, including access to food, water, and health services.

Zimbabwean authorities should urgently provide alternative sources of safe drinking water, such as safe boreholes and protected wells, and educate residents about simple low-cost safe water storage and delivery methods. The authorities should ensure that there are sufficient water points across the country to prevent overcrowding and enable social distancing.

“COVID-19 has made an already dire and dangerous water crisis even more urgent in Zimbabwe,” Mavhinga said. “Failure to provide sufficient safe water would severely undermine the Zimbabwe government’s efforts to fight the virus and protect people’s lives.”