Water in Zimbabwe: Too little, too late, or simply too much

Originally published
by Solveig Olafsdottir in Masvingo province
Within the space of a week, the Sithole family have gone from having too much water to hardly any at all. First, they lost their house, land and property Bikita district, in Zimbabwe's Masvingo province, as the Mungezi River flooded.

Today, they are living in tents donated by the Zimbabwe Red Cross after being relocated by the local authorities to a dry, barren plot around 50 km from the river banks that used to be their home. Now, a shallow well is their only source of water.

This family of six is all too aware that water can be a destructive and deadly force, as well as the fountain of life. Their story is a complicated one, yet it is one familiar to millions around the world - the right of access to safe water.

The Sitholes, together with eight other families, have been at the centre of a dispute ever since the authorities decided to build a dam across the Mungezi River. As a result, their land on the riverbank had to be sacrificed as it would be completely immersed. Last year, they were resettled in another area, where they built new houses and worked their plots, only to be told in October that they had to leave - the government had lost a court case over the land dispute.

The families had no choice but to return to their previous homes along the Mungezi, in the process losing their crops and the government compensation they had already spent on building their new houses.

The families stayed in their old dwellings for four months, despite warnings that, with the Matezva dam close to completion, the land would soon be under water. On 3 March, disaster struck, when cyclone Japhet made a landfall in Mozambique and swept through to Zimbabwe, bringing relentless rains for more than two weeks. The resulting flooding and destruction affected some 10,000 people throughout Masvingo province.

Jennifer Sithole, 42, was reluctant to leave. She had already been made to abandon her home twice, and was not ready to depart with all her belongings once again. Her five children nevertheless decided to go and save themselves, and leave their mother behind.

"They came back for me just a few moments later, when they realized that the dam was bursting. We escaped, but had to leave everything behind," recalls Jennifer, recently widowed and now head of the Sithole household. "The engineer of the dam helped us rescue some things from the house, but by then the water was already at the window level."

The first night they slept under a tree, watching the river swallow their house and land. Then, they were accommodated by Bikita Minerals, a privately owned lithium mine, until the Masvingo branch of the Zimbabwe Red Cross heard of their case, and put pressure on the authorities to take action. Three days later, they received their new land where they will have to start anew.

This could have been the happy ending, but it is not.

Masvingo province is one of the most drought-affected areas in Zimbabwe. The torrential rains caused by cyclone Japhet in early March simply came too late. This year's maize harvest looks scorched and wilted. The Sitholes and the other relocated families can only begin to prepare for the next planting season in late November. How will they survive until the next harvest, which is not expected until a year from now?

Those worries are shared by Emilia Marevanhema, a neighbour from the Mungezi riverbank, who has also been relocated, together with her 11 family members, and is now living in a Red Cross tent.

Her only water source is a pit hole originally dug for a latrine, but is now being utilized for drinking water. The families dread the day when the rains stop and their wells dry up, and they will have to walk five km to the nearest bore hole. Still, Marevanhema uses only some 20 litres a day for her large family, while, according to the international SPHERE standards, each person should have access to at least 15 litres per day for consumption, cooking and personal hygiene.

"This is just the beginning of the disaster," explains Dzikaimai C. Mavhaire, the chairman of the Masvingo Red Cross branch. "These people have no access to safe water, and there are no latrines in the vicinity so they have to use the bush. They are already experiencing diarrhoea from consuming polluted water, and if there is an outbreak of waterborne diseases, such as cholera, it will travel with the speed of light through this area."

Mavhaire says the Red Cross has anticipated the problem. The branch plays a prominent role in water and sanitation education in Masvingo, which was affected by a cholera outbreak last September. Some 500 cases and 24 deaths were reported in both Bikita and the neighbouring district of Zaka before the health authorities and Red Cross volunteers managed to get the situation under control.

"I see health education, access to safe water and the building of latrines as the priority for the Red Cross here in Bikita. Otherwise we may be facing a life-threatening situation," says Mavhaire.

Masvingo's problem is multi-faceted. It suffers both dry spells to floods, a situation exacerbated by chronic food insecurity, an HIV/AIDS prevalence rate of 43 per cent and endemic malaria.

Due to the scarcity of safe water, thousands of people have to walk five to 10 km every day to the nearest borehole. The Zimbabwe Red Cross, with the support of the International Federation, is trying to prevent an even greater disaster in Masvingo, by stepping up its water and sanitation activities in the province.

The story of the Sitholes and the other families from along the Mungezi River is a personal tragedy. Because of water, they have lost their land and property. Because of lack of access to fresh water, they now threatened with disease and hunger.

Theirs is not an isolated case. Four out of every ten people worldwide currently live in areas experiencing water shortages. By 2025 these figures are expected to rise to as much as two thirds of the world's population - an estimated 5.5 billion people.