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Water crisis: Byo women’s increasingly tough balancing act

Bulawayo Ward 17 councillor Sikhululekile Moyo said women and the girl child were the worst affected by the city’s water crisis. For women, not having access to water makes menstrual hygiene difficult," she said.

When water access is limited, collecting it is only half the battle.

As Bulawayo’s water crisis deepens, women are forced to leave their homes before sunrise, sometimes returning after lunch.

And after getting home, they are faced with the impossible choice of how to use it.

Women who spoke to Standard People said they were confronted with difficult choices to make with the 20 litres of water that they can bring home once a day.

Do they choose to cook, or wash their children’s clothes? Do they give their family drinking water, knowing it’s dirty, or do they give for everyone to bathe? How will they clean the house?

“It is a delicate balancing act as we have to use the water sparingly for cooking, bathing, laundry, toilet flashing among several other household needs,” a woman from Nketa suburb, Senzokuhle Mabhena, said.

“Water rationing has led us to be very strict with our children; for example, we have to be strict with them to control their need to visit the toilet so that we save the little we have and not waste it.”

In Bulawayo, mothers are carrying these stressors every day and manage a continuous juggling act around water day in and day out.

Over time, household tensions build, and in some cases, the tensions and stresses lead to domestic violence.

“We have heard domestic violence cases resulting from women taking longer than usual to collect water, and coming back home to be confronted by angry and suspicious husbands,” Mabhena said.

Bulawayo is in the throes of its worst water crisis in decades with one of the supply dams, Umzingwane, already decommissioned.

The Bulawayo City Council has warned that the Upper Ncema and Lower Ncema dams will likely be decommissioned as well around August, leaving the city’s more than one million people with limited access to water. 

At present, residents are going for over a week without receiving any water supplies.

Council has been delivering water using bowsers, but there are complaints that this intervention is erratic and bogged down by the constant breakdown of the local authority’s trucks.

Michelle Moyo from Njube high density suburb said the water challenges were forcing the majority of women in the area to compromise their safety and wellbeing — even risking their own lives.

“The search for water has become a women’s daily routine in every family here,” Moyo said.

“Women and girls are sacrificing a lot of their time and sometimes risking their safety and lives in the hunt for water.

“Every day, even when they are sick or injured, women have to make the physically demanding walk for water.”

Some women vendors and informal traders we spoke to said they now spent more time looking for water instead of selling their wares.

“Under normal circumstances, I have to be at the Bulawayo vegetable market as early as 5am to buy fresh farm produce,” said vegetable vendor Sarah Mkondo.

“However, it is now impossible for me to do that because I must wake up very early to go look for water.

“I am forced to wash clothes at night, wake up early in the morning to first collect water before I go to the market.

“My daily takings have gone down as a result because my time is now spent in search for water.”

Another informal trader who complained about falling daily takings is a florist, who identified herself as Sis Rosy. Rosy said she was forced to buy water to keep her flowers fresh.

“Fresh flowers need water and because of the shortage of water they get ruined easily,” she said.

“That on its own slows down business. And when it's hot like this we easily get dehydrated because we sweat a lot and, therefore, we also need the scarce water to drink.”

Women, who survive on collecting waste for recycling, have also been affected by the water crisis because they are no longer able to clean their wares and buyers are rejecting dirty materials.

“When it comes to business it becomes worse because whenever we pick our waste, some of it needs to be washed before we take the stuff to the companies or people that we sell to,” a waster picker from Nketa 8, Sitholumusa Nleya said.

Late last year, the government deployed a technical committee to find solutions to the water crisis.

“This was after the local authority approached the government seeking to have the water crisis in the city declared a national disaster.”

The government’s reaction was that there was need for the situation to be investigated further by a committee that was set up to assess the water crisis.

Lawyers representing the Bulawayo Progressive Residents Association (BPRA) recently wrote to the local authority protesting over the water challenges. BPRA described the situation as an assault on their right to clean and potable water as enshrined in section 77(a) of the constitution.

Bulawayo Ward 17 councillor Sikhululekile Moyo said women and the girl child were the worst affected by the city’s water crisis. For women, not having access to water makes menstrual hygiene difficult," she said.

“The challenge of menstrual management can be difficult as long as there is no water,” she said.

“It forces them into isolation during their period, limiting their full participation in society, and robs them of dignity—month after month.”

“Sadly, as the water crisis goes unsolved, everyday that passes is a day of lost opportunities for women and the girl child in this region.”

Moyo said Bulawayo needed a lasting solution to the water crisis to alleviate the plight of women and girls.

“One of the solutions is declaring the city a water crisis area,” she said.

Declaring the city’s crisis a national disaster will allow the local authority to mobilise financial resources for short to medium term interventions to the water challenges.

In March, the government mobilised US$15 million to rehabilitate boreholes at the Nyamandlovu aquifer to provide 15 mega litres to the city as a short term intervention to the water crisis.

In Bulawayo, water challenges are endemic.

The Matabeleland Zambezi Water Project is seen as the lasting solution to the water crisis but the project missed several deadlines during the late Robert Mugabe's reign and now too, under President Emmerson Mnangagwa.

Council once toyed with the idea of recycling heavily polluted water at Khami dam, the first supply dam to be built for the city in 1927. It was decommissioned in 1988 due to heavy pollution.

Council estimates that it requires about US$26 million to purify the dam’s water for consumption.

“The city needs a lasting solution to the crisis in the face of climate change. Water is life and residents deserve access to water each and every single day,” the ward 17 councillor said.

“At the same time, we appeal to residents to conserve the little that we have.”


  • This story was produced with support from the WAN-IFRA Women in News Social Impact Reporting initiative.

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