United Nations

United Nations

Zimbabwe engulfed by sewage

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Source: United Nations

To get to Sinikiwe MaKhumalo's doorstep in Zimbabwe's second largest city, Bulawayo, visitors have to step on a thin plank perched precariously over a trench that prevents sewage from flowing into her house.

The 57-year-old grandmother has endured this arrangement to access her home in the city's Old Magwegwe working class suburb for the past five months after a sewer burst close to her residence.

Service delivery has collapsed in Bulawayo, after local authorities recently announced that the municipality was insolvent and unable to cater to the needs of its almost two million residents

'The disgusting odour is awful and becomes more unbearable by the day,' she lamented over the city municipality's failure to repair burst sewers in her locality.

'I just hope a new team that cares about residents' welfare will be elected to take over the running of the city at the end of the month'.

Zimbabwe is scheduled to hold presidential, provincial and municipal polls on 29 March.

MaKhumalo's neighbour, Ingrid Mayobodo, fearful that her two children would contract communicable water-borne diseases, sent them to live with her sister in another suburb. 'I could not stand them playing 'hop-skip-and-jump' over pools of sewage effluent to get into the house from the street.'

She feared her children risked contracting diseases in such an unhealthy environment. 'Mosquitoes are a menace at night. We keep doors and windows shut at all times, living like we are in prison to avoid mosquitoes getting indoors.'

Mayobodo suggested the council should at least spray the pools of sewage effluent with insecticide to control mosquito breeding or use disinfectants to suppress the nauseating stench. 'We can no longer enjoy our meals in such conditions.'

Possible disease outbreak

The city's unsanitary conditions has left residents fearful of a fresh outbreak of cholera. The last outbreak occurred at the height of a water crisis in 2007 when close to 300 people were hospitalised and 11 died as a result of drinking contaminated water.

The region's consistently low rainfall in the last few years had led to dwindling water levels in the city's dams. Heavy seasonal rain in December 2007 and January 2008 has filled up most of the city's supply dams, allowing for water restrictions to be lifted and enabling residents to flush their toilets after use.

However, the sewer pipes remain blocked, resulting in sewage overflowing into the streets from manholes: 'Our major problem is a shortage of manpower to deal with more than 500 reported cases of sewer bursts,' Phathisa Nyathi, the city municipality's spokesman, told IRIN.

Expensive toilet paper

Council workmen at work on a burst sewer in Old Magwegwe told IRIN that maintenance of the aging sewerage system was a daunting task, but it was aggravated by residents flushing down solid objects, causing sewer pipe blockages.

'At times we retrieve stones, broken glass, spoons, rags or mops and other hard objects when clearing blockages in the system,' council worker Jotham Ncube said.

Ncube said most of the families could no longer afford standard toilet paper and have had to resort to newspapers or torn pieces of cardboard boxes for their ablutions.

'It is no longer unusual to find entire sheets of a newspaper, used sanitary pads, children's shirts or shorts among items blocking the system', he said.

Zimbabwe is grappling with a more than 100,000 percent annual inflation rate - the highest in the world - and unemployment levels of about 80 percent.

Blockages were also occurring from the accumulation of sand in sewer pipes. 'People use river sand to clean their soot-covered pots because they cook over wood fires when electricity is cut off during load shedding [a euphemism for electricity outages] instead of commercial scouring powders that are soluble,' Ncube said. The dirty water was then flushed down the toilet.

Magwegwe Residents Association chairman Bazara Banyana rejected the argument that apportioned blame on residents and said people had always used the same methods of ablutions and cleaning of their utensils.

He said residents cannot be expected to condone the absence of services when the residents pay rates and taxes to the council in the expectation of the provision of those services.

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