By Melody Chikono
Rita Tawona is a 34 year old mother who lives in Glenview, a Harare high density suburb, with her husband and four kids.
Her day starts as early as 3AM as she wakes up to join a long winding queue at a nearby community borehole where she has been spending most of her time these days.
“Sometimes we engage in fists fight at the borehole as people fail to adhere to order. We only get tap water once a week and we have no choice but to rely on the community boreholes. Its overcrowded we risk contracting COVID-19 there,” she said
Her daily routine mirrors that of hundreds of Zimbabwean women in the high density suburbs of Harare, who, coupled with high costs of living, have been deprived of water, a constitutional right.
Zimbabwe is one of the African countries that supported the UN General Assembly Resolution 64/292 on the Human Right to Water and Sanitation which explicitly recognised the human right to water and sanitation and acknowledged that clean drinking water and sanitation are essential to the realisation of all human rights.
The emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic in Zimbabwe in March 2020 has brought with it a myriad of challenges particularly in the area of WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) delivery services, which had always been strained from previous cholera and typhoid epidemics requiring adequate and affordable supplies of clean water to ensure the right to health.
In addressing past and present water challenges, Zimbabwe has partnered with International humanitarian organizations to drill community boreholes in low income high density suburbs country wide including in Harare, Chitungwiza, Epworth, Gweru and Bulawayo to name a few.
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This brings up the issue of the impact of the coronavirus and how affected urban communities are interacting in their access to and management of water facilities in overpopulated residential areas where fights have been known to break out in the struggle for inadequate water resources.
One of the World Health Organization’s recommendations on preventive measures to implement in order to curb the high rates of infection from coronavirus has been social distancing which of late has been referred to more as physical distancing.
This requirement for physical distancing has had its own gendered impacts particularly when it comes to accessing essential resources such as water and food for the family.
With the measures put in place to counter the spread of COVID-19 requiring the highest level of personal hygiene and physical distancing, women have suffered disproportionately as they are the ones who are tasked with ensuring that there is clean water and good hygiene practices are put in place for the whole family.
Similar to medical health personnel women raising families in overcrowded residential areas are in the frontline facing the highest risk of being infected by COVID-19.
Large, multigenerational households and limited housing space make it difficult to maintain distance from others or to self-isolate within the home, particularly when sharing water and sanitation facilities as has been the case in overcrowded high-density suburbs and informal settlements such as Mbare, Hopley and Epworth.
Institute of Water and Sanitation Development coordinator Henrietta Zharare-Mutsambi said it had become crucial for government to invest in human resources in line with the water problem.
“It may be funny but if we can have people have their temperatures checked when entering into a shop, why not at communities boreholes which are overcrowded boreholes,” Zharare-Mutsambi said.
“This is need to improve water reticulation systems all the urban center have their water treatment systems. By improving the reticulation system we reduce pressure on boreholes.
“We have to activate emergency mode of doing things. We must priorities that all the resources towards alleviating the problem otherwise people will die in numbers.
“Local authorities should activate systems that ensure social distancing at highest levels around the communal boreholes. It’s a fact that people are going there every day. We need to save lives.”
Due to socially and culturally embedded gendered norms, women and young girls are viewed as traditional water carriers even in urban communities thus are more exposed to infection by the virus as they have to go out on a daily basis to fetch water from community boreholes.
They are usually in the forefront, when it comes to daily social interaction through handshaking or clapping each other’s hands when laughing at a joke at a community borehole or unprotected wells.
Circumstantial evidence has also revealed that there have been fights at community boreholes as residents particularly women fight off violent water touts who dominate the queues to access water for sale to those who have the financial resources and can’t be bothered to join the queues.
Despite the high risks of infection from corona virus that would compel anyone to avoid any contact, due to desperation for water, most women are not observing the required physical distancing for fear of queue jumpers who would conveniently take up the opened up spaces.
University of Zimbabwe senior law lecturer Elizabeth Lwanda-Rutsate said there was need for urgent action to redress the situation since it amounts to discrimination which is intersectional as based on sex, gender and economic status because in most high income areas, they have their own privately drilled boreholes which they do not have to share as a community.
“There are water committees and community health clubs that decide on how the water and health resources are managed,” Lawanda Rutsate said.
“To what extent are women involved in those committees that can be used to come up with home-grown solutions particularly with regard to maintaining security and order at community boreholes.
“They can even come up with a roster to say house number 12 to 30 in this block accessing water from the borehole can do so between 8am and 11am on Monday and different times on other days with the gender-balanced committees monitoring the access modalities.
She added: “This would be in line with the Zimbabwe Constitution’s provisions in Sections 17 on gender balance, 56 on equality and non-discrimination and 80 on the rights of women.
“The State duty to protect requires the Zimbabwean State to prevent third parties from interfering in any way with the enjoyment of the right to water.
“Third parties include individuals, groups, corporations and other entities as well as agents acting under their authority such as local authorities. “
Security at boreholes should be guaranteed by the State with any violent touts facing criminal charges. The State duty to fulfill is comprised of the obligations to facilitate, promote and provide.”
The obligation to facilitate, she said, requires the State to take positive measures to assist individuals and communities to enjoy the right. The state also need to take steps to ensure that there is appropriate education concerning the hygienic use of water, protection of water sources and methods to minimize water wastage.
In the midst of this life threatening chaos, City of Harare, mandated to provide safe water to the citizens says it stands guided by the government since COVID-19 has been declared a national disaster.
“Residents should take heed of messages and advise on social distancing. Wherever people congregate they should self-respect and social distance. On any plans to curb water woes we stand guided by Government since it a national disaster,” said City of Harare spokesperson Michael Chideme.
In the meantime, for women like Rita, the struggle continues as no immediate solution in place.