Zimbabwe’s water and sanitation crisis predates COVID-19 by decades. But it appears to be worsening and bringing additional dangers during the pandemic.
Access to clean water has long been declining, especially in urban areas. Human Rights Watch (2020) reports that while 84% of Zimbabweans had access to safe drinking water in 1988, that proportion had shrunk to 72% by 2000 and to 64% by 2017. More than 2 million people in the greater Harare metropolitan area have no household access to safe water for drinking.
Population growth coupled with neglected water and sanitation infrastructure compounds the problem (World Bank, 2011). Inadequate access to household water has resulted in the sprouting up of community boreholes, where people wait for hours, even if they join the queue at 3 a.m., to fill their buckets (Kingsley & Moyo, 2019).
The COVID-19 pandemic, which had killed 4,503 people in Zimbabwe as of 8 September 2021 (World Health Organization, 2021), has exacerbated the situation. Citizens are encouraged to wash their hands frequently, maintain social distance, and avoid unnecessary movement. But facing persistent water shortages as well as pandemic-related restrictions, citizens find themselves in a quandary, risking contracting the deadly virus as they join crowds at boreholes to access water before curfew (Mavhunga, 2020).
Recent Afrobarometer survey findings show that a growing number of Zimbabweans report going without clean water, and most citizens are dissatisfied with the way the government has handled the provision of water and sanitation services. During the pandemic, addressing the water shortage is one of the immediate actions that government can take to help reduce the spread of the deadly virus.