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Tobias Gumboreshumba, holding his daughter as he waits with other residents in a queue for water at a borehole near his home in Mabvuku, a poor suburb near Harare.
Tobias Gumboreshumba, holding his daughter as he waits with other residents in a queue for water at a borehole near his home in Mabvuku, a poor suburb near Harare.

In a land without clean water, corruption is bleeding Zimbabwe dry Add to ...

In the darkness before dawn, the people of Mabvuku trudge to the nearest borehole and place their buckets in a line. It will take many hours of patient queuing before they can get the water they need for their daily survival.

At home, their taps have been dry for more than four years. As Zimbabwe’s crisis continues, the daily struggle for water is exhausting. It’s a symptom of a collapsing state, where political infighting and corruption are keeping its people in poverty and misery.

“We were expecting that one day our taps would work, but there’s nothing,” says Tobias Gumboreshumba, a resident of this low-income suburb on the outskirts of Harare.

“We’re getting tired now. It really hurts. All of our brains are spent on where and how are we going to get water today. It’s stressing us very much.”

The 56-year-old grocery-warehouse supervisor had been helping his wife queue for water since 3 a.m., and after six hours they were still waiting.

His family, and three neighbouring families, have 46 buckets that they need to fill every day. They take turns in the queue, moving a bucket forward to hold their place. But the borehole is more than 25-metres deep, the water from the pump is barely a trickle, and it takes a lot of pumping to fill the buckets. Fights sometimes erupt among the frustrated people in the queue.

Zimbabwe, with rich farmland and natural resources including gold and diamonds, should be a middle-income country. But its resources are controlled by a tiny elite, and President Robert Mugabe continues to battle with Western governments and foreign investors, deterring the trade and investment that the country badly needs.

Until the late 1980s, the government supplied safe drinking water to 85 per cent of Zimbabwe’s population. But decades of neglect and corruption have left the pipes dry, forcing many people to drink contaminated water. A cholera epidemic here in 2008 killed more than 4,000 people and sickened another 100,000.

Last year, a report by Human Rights Watch warned that Zimbabwe is at risk of another cholera outbreak because of the continuing shortages of clean water. Since then, little has been done to fix the water shortages, despite government pledges, residents say. “We only see the politicians when they’re campaigning,” said Mr. Gumboreshumba.

A bitter split in Zimbabwe’s ruling party is the latest distraction from the promises. Grace Mugabe, wife of the long-ruling Zimbabwean autocrat, has been relentlessly attacking the vice-president, Joice Mujuru, as a party congress approaches. For months, the country has been consumed by a power struggle over which faction will control the political succession when the 90-year-old President is gone.

Even a senior party official, Environment Minister Saviour Kasukuwere, admits the feuding has gone too far. “We have to stop the chaos, the unnecessary jostling for power,” he said in an interview.

Corruption, meanwhile, is a predatory force that drains money from ordinary Zimbabweans. Just down the road from Mabvuku, the police stop motorists at a checkpoint, look for their car radio and demand to see their “listener’s licence” for the radio. If no “licence” is produced, motorists are forced to pay an immediate “fine” of $10, payable to the police in U.S. cash.

More than two million Zimbabweans have gone into exile in South Africa or elsewhere. Doctors, teachers and engineers are among the thousands of professionals who have emigrated. Zimbabwe’s public servants often aren’t paid their salaries. Hundreds of physicians have been on strike for the past two weeks, seeking an increase in their $282 monthly salaries. “We’ve just collapsed as a country,” says Ibbo Mandaza, a veteran political analyst in Harare.

The Mugabe government routinely blames Western sanctions for the country’s problems, but most of those sanctions have been lifted, and the remaining sanctions are targeted narrowly at Mr. Mugabe and his immediate entourage. A report in September by the International Crisis Group concluded that the economic and social breakdown is largely due to “endemic governance failures” and a “debilitating” power struggle within the ruling party. “Zimbabwe is an insolvent and failing state, its politics zero sum, its institutions hollowing out, and its once vibrant economy moribund,” the report said.

Mr. Kasukuwere, the Environment Minister, said the government has received loans and donations from China and Britain to improve the water system. He predicted that 90 per cent of Zimbabwe’s urban population will have access to clean water by 2018, through pipes or boreholes.

But many Zimbabweans have disengaged from the state. Giving up on government services, they dig their own boreholes, buy their own power generators and pay for their own garbage removal. Some of those who own private boreholes are exploiting the crisis, selling their water at $1 or $2 a hundred litres to desperate families.

Mr. Gumboreshumba paid a contractor to dig a borehole in his back yard. But it was too shallow. It collects water only in the rainy season – and even then the water is too dirty to drink.

“People have lost faith in the government and the system,” said Precious Shumba, director of Harare Residents Trust, which represents more than 50,000 residents. “It has destabilized many families and put a strain on marriages. Men complain that their wives are having affairs with boys to get water. School children spend their nights queuing for water, so they’re too tired to study. It’s a desperate situation.”

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