When death is just a sip away

Residents of Harare’s townships risk contracting deadly diseases due to dirty water

Residents of Mabvuku, a township in Harare, carry buckets of water on their heads after collecting it from a public borehole. Photo: Shepherd Tozvireva

In Harare’s low-income townships, the simple act of sipping a glass of water can send you to an early grave.  

The deadliest cholera outbreak in recorded African history killed 4,288 people and infected 98,592 others in the capital of Zimbabwe in 2008 and 2009.

And in 2018, a twin cholera and typhoid outbreak hit Zimbabwe’s capital, piling on the misery. It claimed 69 lives and over 10,000 people were affected by the diseases, highlighting the dangers of Harare’s dilapidated water-supply system. 

The population of Zimbabwe’s capital has grown sharply over the past 30 years, without a corresponding increase in budgetary spending on public water infrastructure. Harare’s water is so dirty that visitors to Zimbabwe are routinely warned, soon after landing at the airport, against drinking tap water.

There is also anger that a primitive bacterial disease can be allowed by the authorities to terrorise an entire city in the 21st century

A municipal water system that was built to cater for 300 000 residents in the days of pre-independence Rhodesia must now meet the needs of 2,5 million people.  

The crumbling capital city is a microcosm of the nation’s multi-faceted political and economic crisis.

We visited some of the city’s poverty-stricken communities where the Covid-19 pandemic, crumbling municipal infrastructure and a decaying national economy have given rise to a hostile urban environment. In 2019, The Economist Intelligence Unit described Harare as one of the world’s “least liveable” cities”.

Harare has been labelled one of the least liveable cities in the world in a report that considers factors such as the economy, traffic congestion, infrastructure, conflict and access to health care. Photo: ctsnow from Hsinchu, Taiwan / CC BY

Residents’ memories of the devastating cholera outbreak are still vivid, the emotional scars fresh and the anguish palpable. There is also anger that a primitive bacterial disease – which spreads through the ingestion of contaminated food or water – can be allowed by the authorities to terrorise an entire city in the 21st century.  

For most residents of Harare’s low-income townships, accessing clean drinking water is a daunting task, with women having to wake up in the early hours of the morning to stand in long queues at communal boreholes. 

In the sprawling township of Glen View, one of the cholera outbreak’s epicentres, residents recounted the torment of losing loved ones, and the everyday fear associated with the risks of drinking contaminated water.

But 11 years after the cholera outbreak that killed thousands of people, the city’s 2,5 million residents are still struggling to access clean drinking water.

‘People were dying like flies’

Shyline Gumbeze and her daughter Keisha Risinamhodzi who suffered from cholera in 2018, when she was just seven years old. Photo: Shepherd Tozvireva

Keisha Risinamhodzi was only seven years old at the time of the 2018 outbreak, but she still vividly remembers the pain and suffering two years later.

“I was very scared,” recalls Risinamhodzi, now nine, who lives in Harare’s Glen View Two high-density suburb.  “I thought I was dying because I was very weak. My stomach was running all the time and I was in a lot of pain. I stayed in the hospital with my mother, and I can still remember that I had a very painful injection on my hand (drip) throughout. The injection was big and very painful,” she said.  

Risinamhodzi was among thousands of residents treated for typhoid during the 2018 outbreak. Cholera cases were also severe in the area, as well as in Budiriro, a neighbouring township. 

From Glen View – a bustling township popular with informal traders and furniture makers – the cholera outbreak spread to the far-flung provinces of Manicaland, Mashonaland East, Mashonaland West, Bulawayo, Mashonaland Central, Midlands, Masvingo and Matabeleland South.

“I thought I was dying because I was very weak. My stomach was running all the time and I was in a lot of pain”

Keisha Risinamhodzi , 9

Risinamhodzi’s mother, Shyline Gumbezi, 36, believes it is a miracle that her daughter survived, given her tender age when she fell ill.

“Keisha had a fever and her temperature was very high…38 degrees,” says Gumbezi, whose other daughter, Keisha’s older sister, also contracted cholera. “She was vomiting constantly while having a running stomach simultaneously. But I’m glad that after a week of intensive treatment she recovered. It was tough because I was seeing other patients dying, especially those who had cholera.”

Heavy toll on human life

Alice Tapera Samukange lost her husband, Rodwell Christopher Samukange, to cholera in September 2018. Photo: Shepherd Tozvireva

While Gumbezi can look back and be thankful that her daughters survived, the same cannot be said of Alice Tapera Samukange. Her husband, Rodwell Christopher Samukange – a renowned chorister, composer, music director and adjudicator in the Methodist Church of Zimbabwe – succumbed to cholera.

Samukange, who was headmaster of Simudzirai Primary School in Glen View Three township, contracted cholera and died at home on September 9, 2018.

“It happened very fast,” recalls his wife at her Glen View home, adding that her husband was given some pills and sugar-and-salt solution sachets to replenish his body’s fluids and sent home, after they took him to the local clinic. But in the early hours of the morning, Samukange’s condition began deteriorating. “I started praying, but I could not see a positive response from him,” she said. “I prayed and accepted God’s will,” she says, tears streaming down her cheeks.” 

When Samukange’s brother arrived the next morning at around 5am, he found Tapera slumped on a sofa in the sitting room. His brother was dead in the bedroom.

Something in the water?

Residents of the Mbare township struggle for access to clean and safe water, despite local government’s assurances that it ‘meets the set standard guidelines’. Photo: Shepherd Tozvireva

Both Tapera Samukange and Gumbezi believe Harare’s unsafe water is responsible for the respective death and illnesses of their loved ones.   

But the City of Harare spokesperson, Michael Chidemhe, insists that municipal tap water is “safe for human consumption as it meets the set standard guidelines”.

Chidemhe says that the municipality spends US$3 million a month on eight imported water-treatment chemicals, and a further US$1,5 million monthly on electricity to power the plants. These are huge expenses, considering the city announced in March 2020 that this year’s total municipal budget stood at 4,5 billion Zimbabwean dollars. This has since been eroded by 800% year-on-year inflation and is now equivalent to a meagre US$45 million.

Chidemhe’s assertion that the city’s water is safe flies in the face of the findings of a South African company, Nanotech Water Solutions, which recently subjected Harare’s tap water to laboratory tests. The tests revealed dangerous levels of toxins that could potentially cause serious liver and nervous system ailments. The tests, conducted in March 2019, found germ-carrying “algae and associated toxins, especially hepatotoxins and neurotoxins”. 

The constant realisation for Samukange and Gumbezi that two years after their life-changing experiences the next typhoid or cholera outbreak can happen at any time only worsens their emotionally draining ordeals.

“I’m living in fear of cholera, typhoid and other water-borne diseases because our water is not safe. It smells of sewage and is dirty”

Shyline Gumbezi, 36

Tapera Samukange says she has resorted to only using borehole water, which she treats with aqua tablets or a chemical purifier known as Water Guard, to ensure her family’s safety.

She has not drank municipal tap water since her husband died, as she remains convinced it is dangerously unsafe:

“The tap water is definitely not safe. Sometimes it will be smelly and dirty. Even when it appears clean, when you put it in a bucket [and leave it] overnight you will find some green slimy stuff in the water or at the bottom of the bucket. Sometimes the water is blackish in colour.

“So drinking tap water is not a risk that I can take. Never.”

Not everyone who uses municipal water can afford to treat it before drinking it, and they are sometimes forced to drink directly from the tap despite the health risks. Photo: Shepherd Tozvireva

Gumbezi, on the other hand, relies on municipal tap water, but says she doesn’t trust it.

“I use tap water, but I make sure that I use aqua tablets to make sure it’s clean,” she says. “Fortunately, at the moment I have many tablets I was given by Oxfam. But when I run out, we sometimes drink directly from the tap. I know it’s not safe, but I cannot afford the tablets. I’m living in fear of cholera, typhoid and other water-borne diseases because our water is not safe. It smells of sewage and is dirty.

“I hope the government and the city council can fix the water problem to save lives because it’s a matter of time before cholera and typhoid strike again.”

New cholera outbreak ‘inevitable’

Ruvarashe Magwenzi draws water from a well at her home in Glen View. Photo: Shepherd Tozvireva

Wiseman Chinogurei, 23, works as a community coordinator in Glen View township for the Harare Residents’ Trust, a civic organisation. He says another outbreak of cholera is inevitable, given the municipality’s failure to supply potable water.

“We have a serious problem in the community because water is scarce,” he says. “We also have frequent sewer pipe bursts and these end up contaminating wells and boreholes. For example, there is a borehole near Glen View Community Hall which was contaminated with sewage and this was only seen after another typhoid outbreak in October last year” 

Health workers soon realised that most typhoid cases were connected to people who were using the borehole and it was discovered that there was a septic tank which had burst across the road, he says. “The borehole was decommissioned during the outbreak and tests revealed that several others were also contaminated.” 

“Death was all over the suburb, particularly in Glen View Three. It was sad and many people were psychologically affected” 

Fidelia Gunzvenzve, 41

Fidelia Gunzvenzve, 41, a community health worker in Glen View, was actively involved in door-to-door awareness campaigns in 2018. She says she has noticed behavioural change among residents in the aftermath of the major cholera and typhoid outbreaks.

Most locals now either boil the water or use aqua tablets or the Water Guard purifier, she says.

“There are however some who do not treat borehole water because they think it’s safe. As community health workers, we actually encourage them to use tap water because it’s much safer than borehole water, which can get contaminated with sewage because of seepage,” says Gunzvenzve. “But, of course, it’s hard to convince people because sometimes the [tap] water is dirty and smelly.  We don’t want another outbreak in the community because people suffered. 

“Death was all over the suburb, particularly in Glen View Three. It was sad and many people were psychologically affected. It’s a shame that the water problems in the suburb have not yet been fully addressed.” 

Precious Shumba, the founder and president of the Harare Residents’ Trust, says the right to safe water must be taken seriously.

“Water is both a human need and a right,” says Shumba. “The Constitution of Zimbabwe recognises the right to water in Section 77. The City of Harare has for more than a decade struggled to meet this right and need, and only provides water to around 40% of residents, leaving 60% without access to municipal water.” 

Harare calls itself the “Sunshine City,” and the local authority’s motto is: “A world-class city by 2025”. But that lofty aspiration will remain a pipe dream until clean drinking water flows out of every residential tap.

This story was produced with support from the Center for Collaborative Investigative Journalism

Corruption and mismanagement blamed for Harare’s water crisis

Procurement contracts in the water delivery matrix are now an arena of grand corruption, investigations by journalists at the privately owned Zimbabwe Independent and NewsDay newspapers have shown. 

Both the local municipality and central government have been criticised by civic organisations for lacking transparency in managing water development funds. A US$144 million loan from the Chinese Government-owned Export and Import Bank of China for the upgrading of Harare’s water supply system is mired in allegations of corruption and mismanagement. Instead of spending all the money on pipes and pumps, officials are reported to have splurged US$1,3 million of the money on luxury cars. 

Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa vowed that municipal officials who misused the water loan would be “punished”, but no action has been taken.

Last year, the Zimbabwean government announced it had clinched a US$600 million facility for the upgrading of Harare’s water supply system. However, sources now say the financier, again the Export and Import Bank of China, is reluctant to release the money in view of the murky manner in which the previous loan was handled.