By Henry Matewu
HARARE – Conflicting findings about Zimbabwe’s water quality continue to hog the media in this Southern African nation, with independent findings evidently showing that water in most bodies is contaminated, contrary to government-initiated research giving the water a clean bill of health.
But whether dirty or clean, for many Zimbabweans like 36-year-old Letwin Chindini, an unemployed widow with three school-going children , water has become extremely scarce and as such she has to strive to source it from any point, protected or unprotected.
In a stream lying 20 metres from her home in Harare’s Mabvuku high density suburb, Chindini says she often fetches water for domestic use there.
But exclusively, Chindini also says residents here often pop in to relieve themselves under the cover of tall grass and shrubs as they last had running water almost a decade ago after the council failed to repair broken down water pipes.
Residents have been sourcing the precious liquid often from neighbouring suburbs with running water or alternatively from wells, streams and boreholes sunk by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
“We have no running water in our homes. The available borehole sometimes functions and sometimes it doesn’t. We are aware human waste blends with the water we fetch from this stream, but we have no choice because water is life. We have to use the same water,” Chindini says.
To confirm Chindini’s sentiments, disgusting mounds of human waste lie strewn in the vicinity of the stream nearby, with a thick stench wafting in the air.
Walter Zigariri, who worked as a water engineer for Mwenezi Rural District Council in Masvingo in the 1990s, says in his research entitled Zimbabwe’s Slow Killing Poison faeces worsen the pollution of water as they intermingle with other impurities, which then affect water consumers, often causing diarrhoea.
His 2012 research, which was partly published in The Observer, a local newspaper, in January, also says a combination of faecal remains and high levels of metal contamination in Zimbabwe’s water bodies is resulting in fish having an unusual concentration of zinc and iron, causing liver cancer to people eating the fish.
“This is what my research unearthed and that is why today many people are succumbing to liver cancer, a disease which comes easily owing to such vast contaminations in our waters,” says Zigariri.
According to statistics released by the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency last year, 7 percent of Harare’s 3 million people are drawing water from unprotected wells, raising fears that they could contract waterborne diseases.
Harare City Council Water Director Engineer Christopher Zvobgo agreed that water could be contaminated because some industries and funeral parlours were discharging chemicals into water bodies.
“Whilst the city is doing all it can to treat the water here, we are competing against forces retarding our efforts like industries and funeral parlours that discharge waste into water bodies, most of which is dangerous to humans who use the water,” Zvobgo says.
Zvobgo says most of the waste flows into Lake Chivero, which supplies water to over 3 million Harare residents; something health experts say renders the water unsafe for human consumption.
The Standards Association of Zimbabwe, however, in May this year argued that water in Harare was safe for human consumption.
According to the SAZ report produced by chemistry experts, Taremekedzwa Machiwenyika and Joyce Mufara, water samples collected in Harare had 0, 003mg of arsenic against a highest desirable level of 5mg and a maximum permissible limit of 100mg.
This, according to the findings, meant the water here is suitable for human consumption.
But clinical studies carried out on Harare’s water supplies by University of Zimbabwe researcher, Chris Magadza, last year revealed that “the water bodies here carry a significant amount of pollutants, which pose potential health risks to both humans and living organisms.”
“Our researches done between 2011 and 2013 using samples of water from different places countrywide show that mostly our water is often infested with industrial waste with dangerous chemicals, accompanied by smelly human waste, which is a danger to humans and other living organisms,” says Professor Magadza.
Professor Magadza’s research, particularly using water samples taken from Harare’s Mbare high-density suburb, bears an alarming presence of coliform bacteria, which are microorganisms associated with sewage and human waste.
“The presence of coliform bacteria in water signals the presence of disease-causing organisms whose source varies from human, animal waste or other forms like rusty or dirty water pipes,” says Professor Magadza.
Similar sentiments were expressed by the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority. Minutes of a meeting by the authority on 23 January this year also detail the authority’s concern over rising cases of poachers applying dangerous chemicals in water bodies in various places nationwide to trap wild animals.
According to the minutes, humans were consequently at risk as they also depend on the water bodies.
Harare City Council spokesperson, Lesley Gwindi however insists: “At no point has our water been substandard as we have stringent and clear procedures of water sampling, with the Standards Association of Zimbabwe involved.”
Despite independent research condemning water in various sources in this Sothern African country, 2013 findings by the National Census Report claim 75 percent of Zimbabweans enjoy access to clean potable water in cities.
Investigations by this reporter showed that owing to the conflicting findings on Zimbabwe’s water quality, urban dwellers often using running water are now confused about the state of water they use.
“Various results of tests on water quality here have done little to quell residents’ scepticism of running water in towns, with many residents rather switching to drinking bottled and borehole water, or first boiling what the municipality pumps into their taps,” says top Harare water engineer, Philip Pfukwa.
As a panacea to Zimbabwe’s untrusted waters, the Environmental Management Authority (EMA) is urging government to protect wetlands.
“Government has to observe national and international laws that protect wetlands, which also naturally clean water by filtering contaminants such as ammonium nitrates, phosphorus and sediments, subsequently restoring groundwater supplies by recharging aquifers,” says Steady Kangata, Public Relations Manager for EMA.