“ I was taught that water is alive. It can hear, it holds memories.” — Kelsey Leonard
What does water mean to me? Water means life. It’s tied to the sole survival of humans, nature, and animals alike.
We drink it. We clean with it. We grow agricultural produce with it. We generate power with water. Different elements of nature and animal life are rejuvenated by water. Water makes up 71% of the earth’s surface. No person or living object can survive without this precious finite resource.
Given the fundamental role of water in human life and to the sustainability of the earth, access to water is recognized under international and national law as a core socio-economic right. In 2010, members of the United Nations General Assembly voted Resolution 64/292 that established the right to clean drinking water and sanitation into the body of binding international law.
A Human Rights Watch report states that the “appreciation of this right demonstrates that water and sanitation are crucial not only for health but also for other key aspects of development, such as gender equality, education, and economic growth”.
In addition to voting Resolution 64/292, the Government of Zimbabwe is obligated to ensure that all citizens have safe, clean, and potable water. The legal duty is entrenched in the 2013 Constitution under Section 77 (a).
Hellum et al. (2015: 300) note that the Constitution does not explicitly provide the right to sanitation but states that citizens have the right to an environment that is not harmful to their health and well-being in Section 73 (1) (a).
The water provision framework in Zimbabwe also includes Zimbabwe’s National Water Policy of 2012. The policy highlights weaknesses in the government’s current provision of water to citizens. The Ministry of Water Resources Development and Management (now Ministry of Lands, Agriculture, Water, Climate and Rural Settlements)(2012: ii) cites challenges of unsustainable water pricing policy, water losses through dilapidated infrastructure, dumping of raw sewage, and others affecting the government’s ability to ensure proper water and sanitation services.
In Harare, the municipal authority, the City Council of Harare aims to correct these faults through its Cholera Elimination Strategy. The strategy adopts a multi-sectoral approach to curb cholera in Harare as it addresses the infrastructural and urban planning challenges driving the contagious disease. It seeks to eliminate cholera from Harare by 2028 and coincides with the Global Strategy of Eliminating Cholera by 2030. It also contains emergency response measures to curb the spread of cholera in an outbreak situation.
During my master’s research on international responses to persistent cholera outbreaks in Harare, I interviewed representatives from the Council’s health department. One respondent from the local authority stated that the strategy was already being implemented in Glen View, a cholera hotspot suburb.
From June 2019, the Harare City Council began to replace the main water and sewer lines in the township area. However, due to limited access to the Strategy document, I could not independently assess if the local authority sufficiently tackles the infrastructural challenges and social determinants of health driving cholera in Harare.
Nor, could I assess if the Cholera Elimination Strategy addressed women and men’s specific water needs. Such assessments are crucial if we are to address gender inequalities in our society.
In comparison, the National Water Policy identified above acknowledges that women and girls share a disproportionate burden of fetching water and taking care of the sick. These gendered roles place this group at risk of acquiring cholera or any other waterborne disease if the water sources are contaminated.
A report produced by UNICEF states that globally, women and girls spend 200 million hours every day collecting water. This is particularly true for women and girls living in low-income high-density urban areas and rural areas. This time could be used for learning at school. Women could use this time to be economically and politically active. They could use this time to rest!
Not only are women and girls losing time and facing increased vulnerability to disease; they are at risk of experiencing sexual violence and physical harm when they visit water sources.
A Zimbabwean women’s organization called Women and Law in Southern Africa produced a documentary, which demonstrates the gendered burden of the water crisis in Harare.
The documentary’s participants share how water point marshals solicit sexual favors from young women to access water at communal boreholes. These women tell the dangers of waking up as early as 3 am to get a place in the water queue. One woman based in Caledonia, Harare narrates the difficulty of potentially telling her husband that she has been raped while going to get water.
Collecting water should not be a life-threatening activity. Water shouldn’t mean danger.
In this context, how do we value water? What mechanisms do we need to create to ensure that water is accessible, safe, clean, and affordable? How do we manage unrelenting commercial interests against people’s needs when water availability becomes increasingly erratic due to extreme weather patterns? Lastly, why do state and international governance platforms continue to hold water dialogues without the equal representation of women and girls?
These questions need to be incorporated in our local and global discussions on water governance, consumption and policy development. In order for us to better manage the challenges surrounding finite resources, we need to rapidly transform the way in which we value water.
Valuing water looks like including women and girls in the decision-making and leadership process of water governance.
By creating policy spaces that encourage their input; governments can adopt innovative water management, project design, and implementation practices that address women and men’s specific water and sanitation needs. We can create safer solutions to water sourcing in an increasing water-scarce society. It means giving women and girls back their time to live full lives.
Valuing water better means transparent and sustainable water governance from state entities.
In Zimbabwe, this translates to national and local governments looking beyond political interests and finding solutions to the urban water crisis.
At a personal level, valuing water means treating the resource with kindness and responsibility. We are custodians of this resource. It is only right to ensure that generations to come have equal access to clean affordable drinkable water.