Families sleep in queues for water as drought grips Zimbabwe's Bulawayo

A view of reusable water storage containers for sale in Makokoba, a poor neighbourhood of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. File picture: Lungelo Ndhlovu/Thomson Reuters Foundation

A view of reusable water storage containers for sale in Makokoba, a poor neighbourhood of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. File picture: Lungelo Ndhlovu/Thomson Reuters Foundation

Published Jun 17, 2020


Bulawayo, Zimbabwe -

Twice a week, Nothi Mlalazi joins a long line with dozens of

other people - some of whom have slept there overnight - and

stands for hours waiting for water in Zimbabwe's second-largest


As the parched southern African country endures its worst

drought in years - a problem scientists link to climate change -

ongoing water shortages in Bulawayo have left residents in some

suburbs without running water for more than three months.

The tankers that the city council sends to deliver water

every few days are often the residents' only hope for clean


Many will spend the night at the delivery point to make sure

they can fill their buckets before the tankers - or bowsers -

run dry.

"Receiving water from bowsers is a huge challenge for many

residents. We spend most of our time in long, winding queues,

impatiently waiting to fill up our containers," said Mlalazi,

45, who lives in the poor, crowded suburb of Pumula South.

"You will find (people) as early as 1am already there,"

she added, as she stood in line with two of her daughters, who

watched to make sure nobody stole their water buckets.

After several years of drought and patchy rains, reservoir

levels have fallen dangerously low, pushing the Bulawayo City

Council (BCC) to limit water supplies in an attempt to conserve

the resource until the rainy season starts in October.

Last month, city authorities began shutting off piped water

six days a week, reporting that the three dams acting as the

city's primary water sources were at less than 30% of capacity.

The city had already decommissioned three other dams due to

the water dropping below pumping levels.

Some residents have resorted to drawing the water they need

for washing from unprotected sources such as ponds and leaking

water pipes, or tapping into sewage gutters for water to flush

their toilets, said Pumula South resident Charles Siziba.

Siziba said the situation is made even more dire by the

coronavirus pandemic, as the lack of running water increases the

risk that people will catch the illness and infect others.

It is almost impossible to practice the regular handwashing

that health experts say is one of the best weapons against the

virus, he noted.

"And there is also no social distancing to speak of, because

when the bowser comes through, residents push and shove in the

water queue to fill up their buckets," Siziba said.

Many central and western parts of southern Africa -

including Zimbabwe - have experienced their lowest rainfall

since 1981 over the past year, according to the United Nations.

Attributing the low reservoir levels to back-to-back

droughts since 2018, Bulawayo Mayor Solomon Mguni compared the

city's struggles to those during a devastating dry period in the

early 1990s.

"The city's water situation is almost a recurrence of the

1992 situation where the city experienced a crippling drought

that affected the city's raw water storage and supply," he said

in a June statement.

Mguni added that the city council had made repeated appeals

to Zimbabwe's Ministry of Local Government, Public Works and

National Housing for Bulawayo to be officially declared a water

shortage area, which would channel resources toward

rehabilitating the city's water infrastructure.

In April, an independent engineering consultant hired by the

ministry concluded that Bulawayo's dams had enough water to last

14 months and that a crumbling water supply system is to blame

for the shortages.

Local officials disputed the findings, saying the water

shortages were not solely an infrastructure problem.

More than 30% of the water running through the city's pipes

leaks out before it reaches consumers, city council spokeswoman

Nesisa Mpofu told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Even on the one day of the week that the water is turned on

in Mlalazi's section of the city, she and her neighbours still

find their taps run dry, as the water network struggles to get

the resource up to their homes on higher ground.

Simela Dube, the director of engineering services at the

city council, confirmed to the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a

phone interview that some residents don't get any water at all

because of low pressure in the city's pumping systems.

"When pressure is low in our reservoirs, it doesn't flow

into high-elevated areas," he said.

"Because of this situation, bowsers are dispatched to those

areas that don't get water."

But the water tankers are not always reliable, say local

residents and authorities.

Sichelesile Mahlangu, a member of parliament for Pumula

constituency, said she recently met some residents who had been

in line for 12 hours waiting for drivers to dispense water.

To ease the situation, Dube, the water engineer, said the

council has started the process of installing 10,000-litre

"water-tank kiosks" in 25 sites where more than 6,000 homes are

in need of emergency water supplies.

The kiosks, which cost $4,500 each, consist of a large tank

with multiple taps. The bowsers fill the tanks each week and

residents can collect water at any time of day, cutting down on

queuing times.

According to Mpofu, the council spokeswoman, one kiosk has

already been installed in the Pumula East suburb and the city

has identified sites for six more so far.

Last month, Thabo Siziba, a Zimbabwean real estate investor

based in Canada, launched a campaign using the online fundraiser

GoFundMe to try to gather $15,000 to build at least two of those

water kiosks.

The campaign has raised more than $4,000 so far.

In Pumula South, resident Nelson Mande Lunga told the

Thomson Reuters Foundation that he stopped getting running water

in his home weeks before the city started limiting water

supplies to one day a week.

"I have resorted to asking for water from my neighbours who

can get water on low pressure," he said.

"Otherwise, I also rely on my friends who fill up my water

containers from town," Lunga lamented as he stood next to his

seven buckets in a long queue for the water tanker.

Thomson Reuters Foundation

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