Zimbabwe has gone up and down in terms of Wash (water sanitation and hygiene) services and the newly formed government of national unity presents opportunities for the improvements in Wash.
While we look towards the rehabilitation, development and expansion of water and sanitation infrastructure, there is a concern that social values, principles, standards and ethics will not have such an easy quick fix.
The decline in services has been over a decade and similarly this means that there is a whole generation that knows no other quality service either than water shortages, unmanaged waste, burst pipes etc.
It is this generation whose Wash benchmark is skewed and who in the future will require much more than a quick fix of infrastructure.
Zimbabwe presents an interesting case study in terms of the development processes particularly from a Wash perspective.
The attainment of independence in 1980 coincided with the declaration by the United Nations of the decade for drinking water supplies and sanitation.
At that time the newly independent government came to power with a “zeal and zest to re-do the injustices of the colonial past” and this meant accelerated development in coverage of water and sanitation, housing, rural electrification roads network agriculture, energy development etc.
In short, what Zimbabwe aimed to achieve was development of structures and meeting certain standards.
Guided also by the inherited British planning system, that also subscribes to the “city beautiful concept” of structured and formal development processes, the country’s goals were clear, ambitious and largely aiming at a socialist egalitarian society.
Given the political climate of reconciliation, the country was a darling of the international community leading to support being churned out to various sectors, Wash included.
Against this background, Zimbabwe developed an ambitious Integrated rural water supplies and sanitation programme whose aim was “to provide the entire communal and resettlement area population with access to safe adequate water and sanitation facilities by year 2005”.
The general objective of the programme was to improve health conditions and quality of life of rural population.
What was evident at the start of the programme was emphasis on the provision of facilities and the use of acceptable standards in the delivery of that service.
The post-independence era saw a boom in Wash and this was supported by a highly motivated civil service, generous external support, receptive communities who demanded services of certain quality and standard and an enabling environment through national policies and strategies.
From a 7% coverage of rural sanitation, the programme recorded gains of up to 60% latrine coverage in 1999 (JMP), for urban supplies coverage was at 99,9% and this was because of city by-laws that demanded each new house built had to be connected to a sewer using the waterborne system.
Twenty-eight years after independence, the country has experienced rapid decline in development and it is clear that the country will be unable to meet the Millennium Development Goals that it has agreed to since 2000.
Zimbabwe has seen a reversal in the gains that it has achieved in the many sectors, particularly in water and sanitation.
The reversal in the gains has contributed to a large extent to the cholera outbreak and humanitarian crisis that has besieged the country since the first report in August 2008.
To date, the death toll stands at over 4 000 reported cases.
This could even be higher due to unreported cases in the rural areas.
Cholera outbreaks keep erupting suddenly in the urban centres and some rural areas.
While it is generally accepted that poor infrastructure, lack of access to safe water and sanitation and poor hygiene practices has led to this humanitarian crisis, one wonders if the problem has not been exacerbated by declining standards, values and socialisation.
As we enter into the new Zimbabwe with a government of national unity put in place, there is some optimism and excitement that the international community once convinced will again give support as what happened in the period between late 80s to late 90s.
Guaranteed infrastructure development, rehabilitation and expansion is something that is feasible with the right engineers, the economists and the social scientists planning together, the city and in indeed rural areas will be restored to their former status, indeed it may take time.
There will be quick short-term measures, medium to long-term measures for infrastructure development.
What is more worrying and uncertain are issues to do with the restoration of values, standards, morals, principles and ethics.
First, a child that is born in the past decade has already lost the ideal situation vis-à-vis Wash.
To them water shortages, lack of access to sanitation is more of a norm than an exception hence they are used to open defecation, flying toilets and any other forms of unsafe and undignified sanitation practices.
They do not have a value system by which they can measure themselves or aspire to be. Convincing this child who will soon be an adult is going to be difficult and these will be slow adapters to change.
The decline has not been confirmed to the hardware infrastructure alone but has also affected waste collection resulting in piles of rubbish across the cities.
For children without much access to recreational facilities, these dump sites have become the playing ground, the puddles of waste water a swimming pool.
Again, they do not see anything wrong for they have never known anything better.
This change in culture values and in principles will take much longer than infrastructure development.
Secondly, another worrying phenomenon in adults is how quickly we have all adjusted to unacceptable service, standards and principles.
In the 90s it was unacceptable to see sewerage flowing in the city, to go for hours without running water in urban areas and to see heaps of uncollected garbage.
Presently there is flowing sewerage, unacceptable smells, and uncollected garbage and in response households have changed their benchmark and are adapting and learning how to cope in the best manner that they can.
Most urban households are becoming self-contained units where water is treated at household level, solid waste managed at household level through burning and digging pits, excreta is also dealt with at household level through various sometimes unsafe disposal mechanisms.
Instead of demanding service of a certain standard and level, households have learnt to adapt and employ other coping mechanisms and in most cases lowering their Wash standards.
It would be difficult to expect that this adult will in the future demand better services of acceptable quality and quantity.
Currently consultants, engineers, economists, financiers, and the public sector are in the process of developing short-term to medium -term recovery plans for Wash.
These plans will of necessity look at rehabilitation, expansion, and development of new facilities yet the issue of lost values, standards, principles and indeed ethics cannot be dealt with in a recovery plan in the same manner as we deal with infrastructure.
There is need for strategies that will focus on social values and standards for more sustained Wash and development.