Bulawayo — From jobless youths hired to dig wells to illegal sellers supplying water in buckets and large tanks, some enterprising Zimbabweans are cashing in on the country’s desperate water shortages.
Zimbabwe’s long-standing water supply problems have been worsened by a severe drought ravaging the Southern African region.
Taps in large parts of the country run dry for several days in a week, including the capital Harare, as part of government-imposed restrictions.
In suburbs around Bulawayo, the country’s second city, scenes of people carrying 20-litre buckets of water on their heads or pushing wheelbarrows laden with water drums from mobile tankers are a daily occurrence.
Although authorities prohibit the private selling of water, the ban has done little to discourage the business.
Poor and desperate residents fork out between 50 cents and $1 for a 20-litre bucket of water sold by illegal water dealers. According to World Bank figures, average income per person in Zimbabwe in 2015 was less than $2,50 per day.
“As Zimbabweans, we have gone through a lot of suffering that has made us very creative as we look for solutions,” water seller, Mandla Dungeni said.
“It’s just a matter of capitalising on the situation to make extra cash.
“I find ways of delivering the water either at night or during the day but in a clever way.”
Dungeni says he collects the water from the city centre and industrial areas in Bulawayo, where cuts are not regularly imposed.
With Zimbabwe’s economy in the doldrums, the government has struggled over the last decade to maintain the crumbling water infrastructure.
The water supply crisis in 2008 was marked by a deadly cholera outbreak which killed at least 4 000 people.
The disaster, which is still fresh in the minds of many Zimbabweans, took place at the height of the country’s economic and political crisis, as the government failed to service ageing infrastructure, with sewage contaminating water reservoirs.
Spending extra money to buy water has presented an additional burden for many households, who rely on meagre income to feed themselves.
Many residents have resorted to keeping stockpiles of water in small barrels whenever the taps are running.
Soneni Ndiweni, 54, a resident of Bulawayo’s Magwegwe suburb, said she had turned one of the rooms in her house into a water storeroom, just to avoid buying from “water merchants” roving the town.
“The prices range from 50 cents to a dollar per bucket, so one family can spend between $3 and $5 a day on water,” she said.
“What worries me is the health aspect,” she lamented. “It is never safe to use water from unknown sources, so we try to keep enough drinking water. If we have to buy water it will be for laundry and bathing.”
Several international aid organisations have raised the alarm over Zimbabwe’s water and sanitation crisis which has been exacerbated by the devastating El Nino drought.
According to the United Nations, the drought, which has affected some 18 million people across the Southern African region, will be at its worst around January.
As the dry conditions persist, more illegal water sellers in Zimbabwe look set to cash in on the crisis.
Another seller, Bernard Phiri, said he sells as much as 1 000 litres of water on a good day, charging $1 for a 20-litre bucket of treated water, while the same size bucket of untreated water goes for 50 cents.
“We just saw a gap in the market and residents appreciate our service,” said Phiri.
Phiri, who does not own a car, said he had to hire a pick-up truck to deliver water to his customers across the city.
“My profit is marginal, but at least we get something at the end of the day since most of us are unemployed.”
Local authorities insist that anyone caught selling water without a licence would be arrested.