Recurring cycles of droughts, sometimes followed by floods, accentuate water scarcity and imbalances across the country, a sad development that has a negative bearing on the lives of women and children.
social commentary with Moses Mugugunyeki
The uneven distribution of water resources — the result of erratic rainfall and varying climate — has stratified the country into areas of plenty water resources and areas of extreme water scarcity and stress.
Provinces such as Midlands, parts of Mashonaland and Manicaland have abundant water resources, while the Matabeleland region, the south-western parts of Masvingo province as well as areas along the Zambezi Valley suffer chronic shortages, with erratic rainfall.
According to a 2017 report from Unicef and the World Health Organisation, 2,1 billion people around the world have no access to clean and safe water. The Zimbabwe Demographic and Health Survey (2015) says the national coverage of improved water service provision stands at 78%; 69% for rural and 97% in urban areas, while improved sanitation stands at 37% only.
And the task of providing water for households falls disproportionately to women and girls, especially in rural areas.
Tendai Matende, a widow who lives in Maungaunga ward, Muzarabani district, is one of a myriad of women in the district who bear the brunt of the water crisis.
Muzarabani is a low-lying area in the Zambezi basin, which makes it drought-prone. Here resides one of the most marginalised communities in the country.
The perennial water problems affect Matende and other women directly as it burdens them with the additional task of fetching water from distant places.
“We wake up every morning around 3am with my two daughters to go and fetch water at a borehole in the next village. Normally, we come back after three hours and the girls have to prepare to go to school and in most cases they would be feeling tired,” she said.
A 2017 United Nations survey of 177 countries pointed out that women spend an estimated 40 billion hours in a year collecting water, which has incapacitated their efforts to engage in other productive and reproductive activities.
Matende said the water problems bedevilling their area was caused by the non-availability of boreholes in their village compelling them to travel to other villages to fetch the elusive commodity.
“We have serious water problems here and we have no choice, but to go to the next village. We have approached the responsible authorities over the years and they are yet to respond,” she said.
Matende said most women and children in their village carry the burden of fetching water while men engage in other duties.
In some parts of the district, the situation is dire, with most families fetching water from unprotected sources.
In Gombera village, most families rely on water drawn from river beds — these sources, which are called mufuku in community lingo have over the years been the panacea to the communities’ water woes.
“Like most parts of the district, we suffer persistent water shortages. We always rely on the shallow wells that we dig along the beds of Hoya River,” said a villager who spoke on condition of anonymity.
He confirmed that in most cases, women and children carry the responsibility of digging these wells and fetching water.
While much has been done to ameliorate water supply in urban areas, little has been done to increase access to safe water for rural communities.
Only two in every five people in the Sadc region have access to safe water for drinking and household use. Seventy-five percent of those lacking access live in rural areas and the majority of them are women and children.
In the wake of such water challenges, the Zimbabwe Red Cross Society (ZRCS) last month commissioned a $38 000 water pipeline project in Chiwenga ward 24 in Muzarabani.
The solar-powered water project, which was funded by the Finnish Red Cross, is a boon to Chiwenga Clinic and Chiwenga Primary School with over 840 pupils and 14 teachers as well as 150 households in the area.
“Red Cross footprints in Muzarabani district are there for all to see and I am happy that today we are unveiling yet another plausible initiative that will help curtail water woes at the local clinic, school and community at large,” said Provincial Affairs minister for Mashonaland Central Monica Mavhunga.
More than 40% of the population in Muzarabani district without access to safe water is made up of women and children.
According to Unicef, 1,6 million children die globally every year from diarrhoea that could be prevented with clean water.
Infectious diarrhoea is mainly responsible for the burden caused by water-borne and water-washed diseases.
Local medical expert Johannes Marisa said improving access to safe water supply was a preventive intervention against water-borne diseases.
“Improving access to safe water and basic sanitation services can be the best preventive intervention strategies to reduce diarrhoea. There have been outbreaks of cholera in the country and this is attributed to lack of safe water and poor sanitation,” he said.
Besides travelling long distances to fetch water, women are also burdened with the responsibility of nursing those who would have succumbed to waterborne diseases.
Water-borne diseases affect the gastrointestinal system causing vomiting resulting in acute dehydration that can kill within 24 hours if left untreated.
It is in such cases that you will find women taking the responsibility.
Unicef in collaboration with the donor community is working on projects to improve access to safe water in both urban and rural communities.
“Unicef has been supporting the strengthening of the water, sanitation and hygiene sector, monitoring and has supported government to develop an information management system for rural areas to map out both service distribution and functionality in real time,” said Unicef country representative Mohamed Ag Ayoya.
“Looking forward, Unicef will look to further support community as well as government structures and advocate for increased financing and capacity to ensure all in the population realise their right to safe water and proper sanitation.”
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognises the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights.
International and national laws dealing with human rights should now recognise the right to water and sanitation as equal to other basic rights such as food.
Rural populations in Zimbabwe continue to bear the brunt of the poor water and sanitation situation in the country. However, with the support of development partners like ZRCS and Unicef, among others, Muzarabani’s water woes can be a thing of the past.