Evelyn Mbiza struggles with a wheelbarrow laden with multiple five litre containers filled with water while her eight-year-old child follows behind carrying another container as the two head home after spending several hours queuing for the precious liquid at a local borehole in Malbereign, a medium-income suburb in Harare, the Zimbabwean capital.
For 26-year-old Mbiza, despite the heavy rains that have pounded this Southern African nation, tap water has become a scarce commodity as local authorities constantly cut water supplies in the capital claiming to be doing maintenance work.
“It’s sad; all dams are full of water while we have no water here. It’s humiliating to be queuing for water at boreholes when you are living in the city,” Mbiza told IDN.
Early this year, tropical cyclone Dineo hit parts of Southern Africa, including Zimbabwe, and the heavy rains flooded dams and lakes, apparently sounding good news to many Southern Africans like Mbiza who had endured years of water rationing.
Their situation has not, however, changed. Many taps in Zimbabwe’s towns and cities – and also in other countries in the region – have remained dry, prompting the emergence of backyard water dealers cashing in on the crisis.
“We buy water from vendors when we don’t get it from boreholes sunk here,” said Mbiza.
Contributing to the water crisis in the Zimbabwean water crisis is the decade-long obsolescence of the pumping equipment at the city’s water works.
“Since 1958, the equipment at the [Morton Jaffray] water works has never been replaced and over the years it has aged, with some pipes here now often bursting as they fail to withstand the water pumping pressure, leading to the now usual water cuts,” a top water engineer at Harare City Council told IDN, speaking on condition of anonymity for professional reasons.
Further north of Zimbabwe, in August last year, Malawi’s water crisis had reached alarming proportions as it hit the country’s major cities and towns. For the Lilongwe Water Board (LWB) which serves the country’s capital, shortages there have been the result of low levels of water in Lilongwe River, which is the main source of the city’s water.
“As we have been saying, the water problem that has hit hard the city isn’t our fault,” LWB public relations officer Bright Sonani told journalists last year. “This is due to climate change … We had inadequate rain last season and that led to the lowering of water levels in our water sources and that’s why we have been encouraging our customers to use the available water wisely until the problem is over.”
For Mozambique, east of Zimbabwe, water supply in the Greater Maputo Metropolitan Area, which encompasses Boane district and the cities of Maputo and Matola, also experienced severe water rationing in January this year, following a drop in the water levels of Umbeluzi River and the water reservoir at the Pequenos Libombos dam in the former Portuguese colony.
Last year, residents in the Angolan capital Luanda had also begun to experience water shortages, pushing them – like Mbiza and other Zimbabweans – to depend on water vendors.
At the time, Angola launched two major projects to double the capacity of water supply to achieve one million cubic metres of water in the country’s capital. “At the moment, we have approximately 430,000 cubic metres, which is not enough,” Joao Baptista Borges, Angola’s minister for energy and water, told Reuters last year.
Elsewhere in Angola, town residents are bitter, not just about the lack of water but also about its quality “Even if water happens to be available, it’s dirty water; it’s killing our children; it’s destroying us, and if nothing is done now to help us access enough clean water, all Angolans will die,” Sophronia Hansayani told IDN.
In its 2013 findings, WaterAid – an international charity that aims to transform lives by improving access to safe water, hygiene and sanitation – reported that 9.4 million Angolans, or almost half of the country’s population, did not have access to safe water.
At the same time, the organisation said that eight million Angolans had no access to adequate sanitation, and that over 16,000 children in the country were dying every year from diarrhoea caused by unsafe water and poor sanitation.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) a town in the north-western district of DRC, called Ewo, most locals there claim they are only able to get water from local streams and ponds as they have no access to tape water.
“It has become common and usual here that we drink water from wells and springs,” Gustave Kamissoko, a Congolese man resident in Ewo town, told IDN.
Writing on the crisis of water in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for The Water Project, Rebecca Shore noted that after what has been called “Africa’s First World War”, a conflict among seven African nations including DRC, “water became an increasingly sparse resource due to the collapse of the DRC’s infrastructure during the fighting.
“Although the DRC use to be one of the wettest nations in Africa, today the majority of rural Congolese do not have access to sanitary water because of the lack of infrastructure. In fact a study carried out by the IRC found that since the war, most Congolese have not died from violence, but rather from malaria, diarrhoea and malnutrition, all problems associated with the lack of water.”
In an article titled ‘Water Scarcity in Southern Africa’, Rose Anderson wrote that “Southern Africa is an especially interesting example of water usage across international borders because the water resources of this area are shared among nations with great social, political and economic differences.”
She was referring to the Limpopo River which is shared by South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Mozambique, and which is “being used beyond its sustainable capacity”.
Rose noted that “the two upstream nations, South Africa and Mozambique, draw a significant portion of the river’s water, leaving Botswana and Zimbabwe with a river comprised in some areas almost entirely of treated sewage water.
“Currently, the lack of effective multilateral treaties creating institutions and infrastructure for governing the Limpopo and the lack of an agreement regarding water allocation contribute to the potential for conflict in this region.”
For water experts in Southern Africa, growing rural to urban migration is also leading to pressure on water resources.
“Water-related problems across Southern Africa are a result of continued urbanisation owing to people moving from rural to urban areas for better opportunities and the resulting increases in population and industrial-induced pressures on water resources,” Khumbulani Yende, an independent water expert and water engineer based in Johannesburg, told IDN.