BY PHYLLIS MBANJE
Themba Phiri* wistfully gazes outside through the window of their three-roomed house in Unit O Seke Chitungwiza.
He wants to go and play with his new plastic soccer ball, but his mother angrily points at the flowing sewage in the yard which has now attracted a colon of flies, the infamous green buzzers that blissfully dig into the pungent muck.
Phiri’s mother balances an empty 20-litre plastic container on her head and carries another in her left hand as she heads off to join the usual long winding queues for water at the local community borehole a kilometre away.
She is used to it but it does not get any easier.
For the past few years along with other residents in various neighbourhoods of Chitungwiza and countless suburbs in Harare, she has had to endure ‘dry taps’ and the sewer bursts .
This is despite the fact that children are particularly vulnerable to water-borne diseases while diarrhoea is responsible for 10% of child mortality.
And now with the Covid-19 requirement of frequent handwashing, it has become more prudent to have a regular supply of the precious commodity.
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Access to potable drinking water and appropriate sanitation can prevent these water-borne diseases but places like Chitungwiza face an ever rising and perennial challenge of poor water supply, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) service delivery.
According to a Human Rights Watch report, the same conditions that allowed the 2008-09 cholera epidemic to flourish (poor sanitation, high-density living conditions, lack of access to potable water, official denial of the magnitude of the problem, and lack of information about the safety of the public water supply) still persist unchecked.
“For the past two or so decades we have witnessed deterioration of services especially water provision,” said Alice Kuvheya a human rights defender and president of the Chitungwiza Residents Trust ( Chitrest).
Kuvheya says that issues like corruption in water governance impacted negatively on WASH service delivery.
“So we have a situation where people have now lost confidence in the local authority and resist paying their bills,” she said.
“The local authority then fails to improve and the cycle goes on.”
Kuvheya said Chitungwiza did not have its own water source and relied on Harare but because of a ballooning debt water supply had been reduced.
“So residents are now using unsafe water sources like backyard wells. This has also given rise to water barons,” she explained.
Kuvheya said burst sewer pipes was a common feature in Chitungwiza.
“We are living in sewage and in many areas the residents cannot open windows because of the smell and the flies,” she said.
“Children can no longer play outside because their playgrounds are infested with feacal matter.”
Last year the representative group hauled Chitungwiza municipality and central government to court seeking an order compelling them to urgently act and ensure provision of water to residents at a time of the outbreak of the deadly coronavirus.
In an urgent chamber application filed at the High Court in March 2020, Chitrest raised the matter against the prolonged lack of running tap water supplies and said residents were experiencing erratic and at times no provision of safe and adequate water for domestic use.
The situation, Chitrest argued, was being compounded by the Covid 19 national lockdowns.
Chitrest argued that Chitungwiza municipality and central government had failed to discharge their constitutional obligations of ensuring the provision of potable water to residents and this was a breach of several of residents’ fundamental rights such as the right to water as provided in section 77 of the constitution, the right to human dignity guaranteed in section 51 of the constitution, the right to health care enshrined in section 76 of the constitution.
“We won the case but the order has not been implemented.
“While it is evident that WASH services are critical, there has been little media attention on the many dynamics that surround the subject.
“Unless there is a catastrophe, we rarely see coverage on WASH in the various available media platforms,” said Patience Zirima of Media Monitors.
Speaking this week during a virtual meeting on WASH services Zirima said there was need to get the public up to speed and on board on the issues of concern.
“WASH stakeholders should consider partnering the media for capacity building and access to informatiom,” she said.
Weighing in on the reportage of WASH issues Alexander Rusero said lack of capacity was one of the major reasons why most journalists did not cover WASH.
“We need to revisit the curriculum in journalism schools and adopt specialised reporting like elsewhere in the developed nations,” Rusero said.
Founder of the Community Water Alliance Hardlife Mudzingwa said there were critical components to WASH, which included accessibility to water in terms of affordability and distance to water sources.
“There is also the issue of availability. Is the water there and is its quality acceptable?” he asked.
Mudzingwa said they had noticed that while some areas of WASH had been given fair attention there remained many gaps like the issue of water policies and governance.
“These gaps emanate from lack of information and this can be plugged by training of media personnel.”
Commenting on the water challenges Mudzingwa said there was need for a comprehensive water budget.
“We do not have to wait for a cholera outbreak,” he said.
Speaking on why local authorities were failing to deliver, Harare mayor Jacob Mafume placed the blame on politics at play.
He said people should question exactly who was running the state of affairs.
“Are the elected representatives running the state of the affairs? The city of Harare is the only city with a ceremonial mayor,” Mafume said.
He said most departments were being run on auto pilot since several key staff had been suspended.
Precious Shumba of the Harare Residents Trust blamed the city fathers for poor responsiveness in addressing challenges like water/sewer bursts.
Shumba said corrupt practices were still rife especially on water treatment tenders.
- Not his real name